Third down's a charm

The Panthers may have found a quarterback -- at least one on third downs. Carolina's running game, which has been non-existent for much of the season, suddenly and unexpectedly came alive on Sunday. The Panthers ran a franchise-record 52 times for 183 yards while holding nearly a 22-minute edge in time of possession to defeat the Falcons 10-3 at the Georgia Dome and keep their playoff hopes alive.

With Jake Delhomme out for a third straight week, Fox told his offense last week to get prepared to run the ball -- and run it a lot.

"He told us Saturday, 'Listen guys, we're going to run the ball until we get a first down,'" center Geoff Hangartner said. "Luckily, we got one early on. He was committed to running the ball. And as offensive linemen we love having a game plan like that."

Of course, there was a wrinkle.

Ranked last in the league in third down conversions, the Panthers decided to take quarterback Chris Weinke out on third-and-short and line up rookie running back DeAngelo Williams at quarterback.

The game plan was pretty simple, like sandlot football.

Williams would take the snap from center, pick a hole and try to make the most of it. Some of the plays were designed, but for the most part Williams simply freelanced.

When asked if any of the plays were designed, Williams laughed and said, "It was a designed play -- it was designed to go anywhere.

"I just ran to daylight. At one point every time I went in there it was like the fans were booing and it was like they knew what was coming, but it worked so I stuck with it."

The Panthers only put the play in last week and never expected to run it as many times they did.

But when it worked, they stuck with it.

They ran it 11 times in all, including eight times on third down. It worked for seven first downs.

"I felt comfortable back there in the shotgun," said Williams, who had 82 yards on 21 carries. "The hardest thing is I didn't want to give it away with my feet if I was going left (or right).

"But it wasn't just me back there. I mean, the offensive line did a tremendous job blocking and I can't say enough about Brad Hoover. I mean those linebackers were shooting the gap and he picked them up and it was gain of six, or a gain of seven."

Chris Weinke only completed four passes all day for 32 yards.

DeShaun Foster led the way with 102 yards on 28 carries.

The Panthers came into the game ranked 27th in the league in rushing and nobody in the world could have anticipated what happened on their opening drive.

Carolina opened the game with 12 straight running plays, intermixing Foster and Williams as part of a tremendous 16-play, 73-yard scoring drive that took 10 minutes, 36 seconds off the clock. That stole the momentum from the Falcons, who had scored a field goal on their opening drive. Atlanta would never score again.

Twice during that drive offensive coordinator Dan Henning lined Williams up in the shotgun and he took the direct snap and ran for positive yardage, including a big first down run on a third-and-1 at the Atlanta 4. That set up a play-action pass from Chris Weinke to rookie tight end Jeff King for a 1-yard touchdown pass and a 7-3 lead. John Kasay later added a 42-yard field goal for the game's only other points.

Defensively, the Panthers harassed Falcons quarterback Mike Vick, sacking him three times and intercepting him twice. Vick was held to 109 yards passing and the Falcons had just 177 total yards.

"We played aggressive the whole game and by doing that we won," said linebacker Chris Draft. "We game down here in a hostile environment and we took the game. We didn't ask for it, we took it."

All year long the Panthers have gotten the help they need from other teams to get into the playoffs. But they've failed to take advantage of them during their most recent four-game losing streak.

"We have been getting hooked up all year," Draft said. "We have squandered a lot of opportunities. It does not surprise me at all that we're still in the playoff picture. But what are we going to do now? That is all that it comes down to. All we can do is go out and beat New Orleans last week. If it happens, it happens."

PLAYER NOTES

--QB Chris Weinke made his third straight start for the Panthers on Sunday against the Falcons and at this point it looks like he will finish up the season next Sunday at New Orleans.

--QB Jake Delhomme missed his third straight game with a sprained right thumb.

--RB DeAngelo Williams had 82 yards and lined up at quarterback on Sunday 11 times. He carried for seven first downs.

--RB DeShaun Foster ran often and ran well, going for 102 yards on 28 carries in a win over Atlanta.

--TE Kris Mangum was active for the Panthers on Sunday.

--WR Drew Carter (ankle) did not suit up for the Panthers on Sunday against the Falcons. It's believed to be a high ankle sprain, so Carter will likely miss next Sunday's game at New Orleans.

--RB Nick Goings was held out again with a shoulder injury.

--DE Stanley McClover saw his first action as a pro for Carolina on Sunday. He got a jersey after Mike Rucker went on injured reserve.

--CB Dion Byrum (hamstring) did not play for the Panthers on Sunday.


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