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Panthers contain Vick, but still lose

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- The Atlanta Falcons stormed off
Carolina's field, a victory in hand and a message for the rest of
the NFL.

"We own the South!" linebacker Keith Brooking shouted.

After a 27-10 victory over the defending NFC champion Panthers
on Sunday, the Falcons at least have a firm grip on their division.

The Panthers found a way to slow down Michael Vick -- their No. 1
nemesis -- but failed to shut down any other parts of Atlanta's
game. The result was an easy win that moved the Falcons to 4-0,
matching the best start in franchise history in 1986.

While the players celebrated their 11th win in 13 tries against
Carolina, Falcons management took a far more cautious approach.

"It is extremely early," said Atlanta general manager Rich
McKay. "The thing I like is how hard we are playing. But there is
a long way to go and Carolina certainly won't go down without a
fight."

All the fight belonged to Atlanta in this one.

Warrick Dunn had a 38-yard touchdown run and Kevin Mathis
returned an interception 35 yards for another score.

They won without the typical one-man show Vick usually puts on
against the Panthers (1-2).

Normally unable to stop Vick from racking up astronomical
numbers, the Panthers held him to 148 yards passing and 35 yards
rushing in this meeting. With all the focus on keeping Vick in
check, Carolina was a mess in other areas.

"We get sidetracked as a team, as a defensive unit, in thinking
we've got to stop one person," said defensive end Julius Peppers.
"There's 10 other people out there ... if you focus on just one,
someone else will kill you."

But the Panthers mainly hurt themselves.

Carolina twice turned over the ball to end almost certain
scoring drives. Muhsin Muhammad fumbled on the opening drive at the
Atlanta 21, and the Falcons converted it into Dunn's touchdown run.
Then Jake Delhomme was intercepted at the Falcons 3 to end another
Carolina opportunity on the Panthers' first possession of the
second half.

But the most costly error came with 12 minutes left in the game
and Atlanta clinging to a 13-10 lead. Delhomme threw into heavy
coverage and Mathis grabbed the ball and marched untouched into the
end zone.

It was reminiscent of last November, when Mathis intercepted
Delhomme on the first play of overtime and returned it 32 yards for
a 20-14 Atlanta victory.

"It feels so good to be where we are right now," Mathis said.
"We are playing as a team, we are confident -- but not
overconfident -- and we're really rolling right now."

T.J. Duckett added a 4-yard touchdown run with 4:13 to play to
make the win a blowout.

This meeting was fairly nasty, with 21 total penalties, six
personal fouls called and one near brawl.

Carolina linebacker Brandon Short was called for unnecessary
roughness against Vick, and the two exchanged head-butts afterward.
It led to pushing and shoving between nearly every player on the
field before the officials took control.

Vick completed his first seven passes. Things weren't so easy
from there, and he went just 3-of-11, leaving him 10-of-18 for the
game.

Atlanta's defense, the NFL's worst last season, put together its
fourth consecutive impressive outing.

The Falcons held Carolina to 360 yards total offense, forced
three turnovers, harassed Delhomme the entire day and hardly gave
DeShaun Foster room to run.

"We're a complete 360 degree turn from last year," Vick said.
"This is a great defense and they are only going to get better.
I'm very excited about the future of this team."

Atlanta's most impressive defensive stand came in the waning
minutes, when the Panthers moved into scoring range, but fell short
on four consecutive shots at the end zone. Muhammad dropped a
touchdown catch, and the Falcons broke up the next three passes.

But the Panthers refused to credit Atlanta's defense, instead
blaming themselves for the loss.

"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."

Game notes
Carolina RB Rod Smart left with a sprained knee and
linebacker Mark Fields had lower back spasms. ... Atlanta's Dunn
left with a hamstring strain. ... Falcons receiver Peerless Price
had two catches and two personal fouls. .... Muhammad led all
receivers with 114 yards on seven catches. ... The Panthers failed
to sack Vick. ... Atlanta's Patrick Kerney had two sacks on
Delhomme and has seven this season.

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