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Turner, Falcons slam door on Panthers


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Turner, Falcons slam door on Panthers

http://www.charlotteobserver.com/423/story/372789.html

By Charles Chandler

ATLANTA – The Carolina Panthers didn’t start or finish well in a stinging 45-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

The Falcons built a 17-0 lead before Carolina picked up a first down.

After the Panthers fought back to make it a close game, Atlanta scored 28 points in the fourth quarter against a Carolina defense that entered the game ranked second in the NFL for fewest points allowed. The Falcons’ 45 points are the most scored against Carolina in John Fox’s seven years as coach.

Atlanta running back Michael Turner ran for four touchdowns, the most any player has scored against the Panthers in a game in the team’s 14-year history.

Carolina’s proud defense couldn’t stop Turner on crucial fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 5:16 remaining, when he scored the game’s pivotal TD to increase Atlanta’s lead from three to 10 points.

Carolina also had no answer for little-known rookie Harry Douglas, a third-round pick who scored on a 7-yard run, a 61-yard punt return and had a 69-yard gain on a pass play after the Panthers had cut the score to 24-21.

It all added up to a humbling defeat for a Carolina team whose merciless schedule takes them next to Green Bay to face a Packers team that appears to be getting hot at just the right time.

In a somber locker room, offensive tackle Jordan Gross said the Panthers have arrived at a crucial intersection in their season.

“You come to a fork in the road and you could go left or right,” he said. “Hopefully, we pick the path that we get better from this.”

Sunday’s loss dropped the Panthers out of sole possession for first place in the NFC South and into a tie with Tampa Bay. The Panthers and Bucs are 8-3, with Atlanta close behind at 7-4.

Perhaps the most trouble aspect of the Panthers’ play was their failure to start quickly for the second consecutive game.

After failing to make a first down in the first quarter a week earlier against the Detroit, the Panthers failed to gain any yards in the first period against the Falcons.

Atlanta built a 17-0 lead and accumulated 196 yards in the first 21 minutes before the Panthers finally picked up a first down.

“We’ve been starting slowly … and we knew when we played against the right team, that was going to bite us in the butt, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Gross.

“I think it was pretty much a reality check for us,” said safety Chris Harris. “We’ve got to start a lot faster if we plan on winning games.”

Quarterback Jake Delhomme was spitting fire at halftime.

According to Gross, Delhomme told his offensive teammates: “We’re a good team when we get in a hole or in a corner, but the secret to being a championship team like we want to have around here is starting fast and finishing fast.”

Like the Falcons did Sunday.

To the Panthers’ credit, they stormed back into contention, especially at the outset of the second half.

Delhomme drove Carolina 80 yards for a touchdown on their opening third-quarter possession, using a 41-yard pass to Steve Smith to get them across midfield. Three players later, DeAngelo Williams ran five yards for a touchdown.

A field goal on the Panthers next possession cut Atlanta’s lead to 17-13.

Carolina got even closer than that early in the fourth period after Delhomme ran 12 yards for a TD and Williams scored on a two-point conversion to trim the Falcons’ lead to 24-21.

At that point, it looked like the Panthers might actually finish what would have been one of the most impressive comebacks in team history.

But that changed on a single play.

Atlanta faced third-and-11 from its 25 when rookie quarterback Matt Ryan threw to his left to Douglas.

Cornerback Richard Marshall was defending on the play, but got faked out and then fell down, allowing Douglas to run free. Safety Charles Godfrey had a shot at Douglas, but missed, and Douglas made it all the way to the Carolina 3 before Chris Harris knocked him out of bounds.

After the Falcons failed to score on three tries, coach Mike Smith chose to go for a TD instead of a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 7:13 remaining.

It was a dare for his offense – and the Carolina defense.

“You pride yourself on getting that stop right there,” said Panthers defensive tackle Damione Lewis. “We’ve got to get that stop.”

But the Panthers didn’t.

Turner ran to his left and plowed through the Carolina defense into the end zone.

It was the game’s checkmate moment.

Turner scored again moments later and so did Douglas on a 61-yard punt return.

As Douglas was approaching the goal line, he pointed his finger at Panthers’ punter Jason Baker, who was trying to catch Douglas.

That in-your-face gesture was indicative of the humiliating way the Panthers lost to the Falcons.

“It just seemed like all the wheels came off today,” said Lewis. “But it’s not the end of the world.”

Lewis went on to say the Panthers still have five more games to play and are in good position in their division.

Time is running out, however, and the schedule keeps getting tougher.

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