NFL: Panthers 28, Falcons 19
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó The Carolina Panthers might have finally found a way to solve Jake Delhomme’s woes: controlled chaos.
A heavy dose of miscues from Matt Ryan and banged-up Atlanta didn’t hurt, either.
The Panthers unleashed a no-huddle offense on Sunday with Delhomme calling the plays, and it produced two touchdown passes to Steve Smith, no turnovers and a 28-19 victory over the Falcons.
“No huddle is controlled chaos,” said Smith, who tripled Carolina’s touchdown total by wide receivers coming into the game. “You’ve got defense running around and they don’t know what they’re doing. The no huddle is really easy and simple.”
While Delhomme went turnover-free for the third straight game following 13 interceptions in his first six, it was a difficult day for Ryan and the Falcons (5-4). First, they lost running back Michael Turner to a second-quarter sprained ankle after he already rushed for 111 yards. Then kicker Jason Elam and Ryan stymied their late comeback hopes with key fourth-quarter mistakes.
Ryan, throwing too high much of the day, had two more interceptions He’s at 12, one more than all of his stellar rookie season.
“I’m young,” Ryan said. “I’ve got a long way to go, a lot of improving to do and a lot of things to learn.”
With Ryan completing only 7 of 19 passes in the first half, the Panthers (4-5) built a 21-10 halftime lead. Delhomme looked poised and the Falcons struggled to get the right defensive personnel on the field.
Delhomme, no longer the NFL leader in interceptions, found Smith on a pair of 4-yard TDs and was in his comfort zone. Much of Delhomme’s best work over the years has come in the 2-minute offense.
“That is something that we practice a good bit,” Delhomme said of the no-huddle. “I’m extremely comfortable in that situation.”
The Panthers’ offense wasn’t as successful after halftime, and the game wasn’t sealed until Richard Marshall picked off Ryan, setting up Jonathan Stewart’s 45-yard touchdown run with 2:07 left.
Earlier, Elam missed a 34-yard field goal that would have given Atlanta the lead. It allowed the Panthers to hold on despite losing the cog of their offensive line, left tackle Jordan Gross, to a broken right ankle.
“I think we were at a major crossroad in the season being 3-5,” said receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who had six catches for 91 yards in his return from a knee injury. “If you look at the playoff picture, we have as good a chance as anybody else with seven games left in the season.”
The Panthers earned a season split on the Falcons, who fell to 1-4 on the road and will await tests Monday on Turner’s right ankle. He went over 100 yards early in the second quarter, but rolled his ankle at the end of a 10-yard run, halting a streak where he had rushed for 428 yards on less than 10 quarters.
Jason Snelling replaced him, finishing with 61 yards and a TD on 18 carries.
“We don’t have the explosiveness we had with Michael,” Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “But I thought Jason, for his first time back in a couple of weeks, ran the ball hard.”
Ryan got the Falcons to 21-19 when he found tight end Justin Peelle for a 3-yard TD on fourth-and-1. The 2-point conversion attempt with 13:44 left failed when Chris Gamble tackled Snelling on a swing pass.
Ryan later converted a third-and-11 from his own 3 with a 13-yard pass to Tony Gonzalez. But the drive stalled and Elam, hesitated twice before pulling the short field-goal attempt with 6:35 left.
“My timing was kind of a mess from the start,” Elam said. “It’s me. I need to take the blame.”
The Panthers went three-and-out and Eric Weems returned the ensuing punt to the Carolina 49. But Ryan threw into double coverage, ending Atlanta’s hopes.
Ryan was 22 of 41 for 224 yards and one touchdown, as the Falcons were unable to take advantage of Carolina’s revamped defense after linebacker Thomas Davis’ season-ending knee injury last week.
DeAngelo Williams (92 yards) and Stewart (82) gave Carolina a solid running game, but it was the passing game that keyed Carolina.