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Falcons Thrash Panthers, USAToday.com

Tom Servo

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By Ray Glier, Special for USA TODAY

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons were supposed to be held captive in 2008 by their rookie quarterback, by their retooled offensive line, by holes in their defense and uncertainty at wide receiver. They were supposed to be unable to think big or stretch the imagination and consider something like the playoffs well out of reach for another year or two.

But 12 weeks into the NFL season, there is room for the Falcons to have more than imagination — they have expectations.


BESTS AND WORSTS: Sunday's highs and lows

In front of his locker following the Falcons' 45-28 win over the division rival Carolina Panthers, center Todd McClure looked up and smiled at the first question about the unimaginable: Is this a playoff team?

BOX SCORE: Falcons 45, Panthers 28

"For sure, we are, for sure. We showed that today," McClure said. "That was a good team we played against, and those are the type of games you have to win to make a playoff run."

"We knew we were going to be good, but we didn't need to go tell anybody."

Nobody would have believed the Falcons after they were abandoned by quarterback Michael Vick and coach Bobby Petrino a year ago.

But following Sunday's gashing of the Panthers, Atlanta is 7-4, one game back of the Panthers (8-3) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the NFC South lead.

"Teams are starting to recognize we've got a good football team and powerful offense, and they have to play their best to hang with us," McClure said.

The offense came from different angles Sunday. Michael Turner rushed for 117 yards and tied a team record with four touchdowns.

"It is great to have a guy that can run and break tackles like Mike," Matt Ryan, Atlanta's rookie quarterback, said of Turner. "It's a joy to hand the ball off to him."

Ryan, who has greatly exceeded expectations in his first season, completed 17 of 27 passes for 259 yards and expertly ran a no-huddle offense that kept Carolina off balance.

His receiving corps looks pretty good as well. Emerging star Roddy White had four catches for 70 yards while Michael Jenkins snared four balls himself.

But it was rookie wideout Harry Douglas who put the Panthers away in the fourth quarter with two big plays, a 69-yard reception which set up Turner's third touchdown and a 61-yard punt return for a touchdown that staked the Falcons to a 38-21 lead.

"I wanted to come out here today and show everybody what I could do," said Douglas.

Even though the Panthers racked up 408 yards of offense —Steve Smith had 168 receiving yards — they never led.

"We didn't have an answer for them," said Carolina's DeAngelo Williams, who ran for 101 yards and a TD. "They look like a playoff team to me after today."

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