PANTHERS MORNING AFTER – FALCONS

The Carolina Panthers overcame the specter and spectacle that is Michael Vick with a dominating victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Bank Of America Stadium.

FIRST AND TEN

The Fox TV announcing crew, stellar bunch that they are, had a fine day riding the Vick Express, ‘til it starting raining Panthers and the announcers woke up and realized they weren't in Atlanta anymore.

Not even the total lack of preparation by a bad Fox press box crew could dull the luster of a premier football performance put on by the Panthers. Carolina's defense had Vick bottled up, broken up and beaten up while DeShaun Foster ran red-rosy through the Falcons defense for the first 100-yard running game for a Panthers back this season.

Foster was sensational, running with toughness and speed…breaking through Falcon tacklers and following his blocks with surprising patience, much like his mentor Stephen Davis used to do once upon a time.

Sunday's victory finally and officially signaled the beginning of the Foster era in Charlotte, despite the continuing presence of Davis in the starting lineup. Carolina fans are a quick group and have known for weeks that the future lies in Foster, not in the creaky knees of Davis. It took John Fox, poor fella, 12 games to figure it out.

But it may have been the coming-out-party nationally for the Carolina defense, not Foster, that leaves a lasting remark. Panther defenders sacked Vick five times and generally whacked any Falcon brave enough to touch the football. Carolina shut down the NFL's leading rushing attack and forced the Falcons to resort to its greatest weakness: the passing game.

It was a dominating performance and one the media will point to when analyzing the Panthers' playoff future.

Not even the Fox Network could miss that.

A FEW OBSERVATIONS FROM SUNDAY'S CONTEST

- Sometimes it's the little things: John Kasay kicked off out-of-bounds following a field goal, placing the ball on Atlanta's 40. That was bad enough. Will Witherspoon then let an easy interception pass through his hands on the ensuing possession, a possession that led to a Falcons field goal. It was Witherspoon's second such opportunity in two weeks.

- I think Chris Draft demonstrated why the Panthers coaching staff didn't fall to pieces when Dan Morgan fell to injury.

- Kasay had a poor pooch punt, but the coverage was reason the ball went in to the end zone for a touchback.

- Kasay's PAT's, by the way, were straight as an arrow, without any movement at all, and that's a good sign his rhythm is back.

- Gutsy call by coach Fox to go for it on fourth down. Especially after Jim Mora's own fourth down gamble netted such disastrous results.

- Steve Smith dropped two passes Sunday.

- I like how Julius Peppers gutted it out through obvious pain. Falcon linemen were holding and chopping him all day.

- Several times during the game, Peppers jumped over players trying the chop him. Incredible athlete, that guy. I hope his injury isn't too bad.

- Bad unsportsmanlike penalty call on Brad Hoover. Totally bogus call. What was worse (than the 15 yard penalty) was that the Carolina offense kind of lost its cool, resulting in a rushed play and a Jake Delhomme interception.

- I'm continued to be impressed with Foster's attention to wrapping up the football when he gets in traffic. Fumbling, not the injuries, is what's really held him back from getting the starting job before now.

- At the 7:49 mark in the 4th quarter, Carolina lined up at the four-yard line in a formation, by appearances, designed for the play-action pass. The Fox announcers were certainly thinking pass and said as much. But for those who had really been watching the game, and apparently the Falcons were, too, we knew that Delhomme was going to hand off for the third straight time to Foster. Foster failed to get in to the end zone, but the net effect was just what the Panthers wanted. John Kasay kicked a gimme field goal, making it a two possession game and the play removed an entire 45 seconds off the clock.

- At the 7:30 mark of the second half, I thought: Falcons have to pass now. It's time for Ken Lucas, Witherspoon or Chris Gamble to make a play. Julius Peppers promptly dropped Vick for his 7.5th sack of the season and Ricky Manning picked Vick off at the 3:57 mark.

- The game was truly over at that point. The Fox TV crew said so.

- I admit it: I was hoping it was Mike Minter that got the last pick of the day instead of Marlon McCree. Minter deserves a pick.

- Speaking of Minter, his third quarter lick on Brian Finnerman was just a wicked hit. Had a second quarter whack on Alge Crumpler that was almost as nasty.

- Speaking of Crumpler, one of the most important, yet quiet, aspects of Carolina's success Sunday was Will Witherspoon's superb coverage of said talented tight end.

- Ex-Panther note: Jacksonville is also 9-3. And this with David Gerrard behind center. Superb job, Del Rio.

- A few other non-Panther thoughts:

* Can anyone stop Indy?

* Detroit should not have fired Mariucci, but it wouldn't have mattered anyway Sunday against the Bears.

* Bill Parcells is really starting to look old.

* I swear I thought Dom Papers would do well in Texas.

* Larry Johnson would look nice in black and blue, I think.

* Koren Robinson has landed on his feet in Minnesota. The Vikes, led by rock-steady Brad Johnson, are a team to really watch out for the remainder of the season at 7-4.

* Green Bay will ride into the sunset with Brett Favre, but for the betterment of the franchise they probably should have already benched him. I know…sacrilege!

* I cannot, despite my distaste for the owner, figure out why the Redskins stink so bad. They have so much talent.

* The Bills gave one away Sunday against the Dolphins. I'm sure Miami fans will protest, but Buffalo, leading by three touchdowns, choked.

* Ben Roethlisburger has such soft touch on his passes, complimenting his cannon arm. Big Ben's ability to drop passes over linebackers is the true difference between him and Kerry Collins. Pittsburgh should have won Sunday, by the way.

* I weep for Jay Feely.

FOURTH AND GOAL

This was just the first of this season's battles with the Falcons. The final game of the regular season in Atlanta may have as much impact on where the Panthers begin the playoffs, at home for a game or throughout or on the road, as last season's finale against the Saints had on the franchise's post season fate.

Let's hope the specter of that particular failure will be overcome as well.

TOUCHDOWN

The Panthers played Sunday with determination, focus and passion. They banished the mythos surrounding Mount Vick and washed away a decade of frustration against a hated opponent that always seemed to have its way.

For the players, the coaching staff, the front office, the rest of the organization and the fan base, it's all right to take a moment today and smile. You've earned it.

Smile today while you can, because the Tampa Bay Buccaneers come calling next weekend and the smiling will officially end Tuesday morning.

The 8 & 4 Bucs will come with fire in their eyes, revenge in their hearts and aspirations of a conference championship in their minds. Unlike the Falcons, Tampa is an old friend who won't be as nice and inept as they were last time.

But for now…well done, Carolina Panthers. Well done.

You can reach Chaz at chazestes@yahoo.com

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