Birds of Prey

Maybe it was the terrible weather just hours before the game or perhaps it was the long lines of traffic going into the stadium, but everything around the Bank of America Stadium was giving signs of the foreboding events that were about to occur. The Atlanta Falcons (3-0), came into Charlotte with hopes of continuing their unbeaten season. The Carolina Panthers, fresh off a bye week, just hoped to get the monkey off their back that has plagued them ever since they came into the league.

By the end of the game, it seemed like more of the same old story with the same outcome as previous encounters.

The first quarter started off strong for the Falcons, running their newly installed West Coast offense, lead by quarterback Mike Vick. Vick was able to get hot early, completing his first 7 passes. The Falcons scored first with a 38 yard run by Warrick Dunn after wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad fumbled on the Panthers opening drive. Falcons TE Alge Crumpler played a big role on several possessions and at times seemed to dwarf the Panthers secondary. The Panthers bounced back with a 1 yard run by DeShaun Foster to tie the game. Panther's linebacker Mark Fields left the game in the 1st quarter with back spasms and was replaced by Brandon Short. The injury bug hit the Panthers once again when running back Rod Smart strained his knee when planting it while attempting to return a kick off. He was carted off the field and did not play the rest of the game. Both the Panthers and the falcons put another field goal on the board and went into halftime with the Falcons leading 13-10.

The second half saw the two teams playing a strategic chess match. Jake Delhomme never looked comfortable in the packet all night as the line kept breaking down, allowing the Falcons defense to rush Jake's passes all night. Even when Delhomme had time, he could never find his rhythm, either overthrowing receivers or having to throw into double-coverage. The Falcons, lead by a surprising rushing attack, didn't have to rely on the feet of Mike Vick. Vick, who had run for over 100 yards each time in previous games against the Panthers, was held in check by the Panthers use of their defensive ends in a contain type of defense. On several occasions, Vick did break to the outside, only to be held up long enough by the Panthers defense, and finally having to try to throw the ball to a receiver.

The fourth quarter was the telling tale of the game. After both teams went scoreless in the third quarter, Jake Delhomme threw an errant pass into an area being covered by cornerback Kevin Mathis. Mathis who on that play, was eyeballing the Panther quarterback the entire time, picked off the pass and ran 35 yards into the end zone for the score. That's when the air was let out of the Panthers team. Everyone in the stadium could tell the demeanor of the team after that interception for a touchdown. TJ Duckett came in for Warrick Dunn, who left with a hamstring injury, and began running against the Panthers. The Panthers defense, once again, couldn't stop the run and Duckett added a four yard TD run to seal the victory for the Falcons.

Penalties marred the game on both sides of the ball. The Panthers shot themselves in the foot on several occasions, including a false start penalty by offensive lineman Matt Willig on a third and inches and a holding penalty, which turned a third and short into a third and long passing situation. The Panthers were also called for several roughing the passer situations when they attempted to put pressure on Vick. When asked about the number of calls against the Panthers, especially the ones related to Vick, defensive end Mike Rucker commented, "Well, it is what it is. Everyone knows that Vick is the poster boy for the NFL and therefore you know that the refs are going to protect him somewhat." Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who was the only bright spot for the Panthers, had seven receptions for 114 yards put it this way, ""They say in this league that games are lost more often than won," Muhammad said. "I think this one was more of us making mistakes that gave them the win." In either case, the Panthers drop to 1-2 and the Falcons remain unbeaten at 4-0. The Panthers hope to regroup and find answers this week as they travel out west to face Denver, another team with an impressive ground attack. The Falcons face the Lions next week at home and hope to continue their impressive season.

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