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Falcons pull one out in OT

By Associated Press
Published December 8, 2003

ATLANTA - Michael Vick handled things in regulation. Kevin Mathis took care of overtime.

Vick rushed for 145 yards, the third-highest total by a quarterback in league history, and Mathis scored on a 32-yard interception return in overtime to lead the Falcons past the Panthers 20-14 Sunday night.

On third down, Jake Delhomme attempted a pass over the middle. Mathis stepped in front of the intended receiver, picked off the ball and headed the other way.

Delhomme tried to knock Mathis out of bounds at the 1, but Mathis dived for the pylon. After calling off Atlanta's celebration to review the play, referee Bill Carollo ruled Mathis scored 1:29 into overtime.

The Falcons, 0-6 at the Georgia Dome this season coming in, were the only winless team in the league at home.

The loss prevented Carolina from clinching the NFC South.

Atlanta had been 0-5 this season in games settled by seven points or fewer. Carolina was 7-2 in those games.

The game marked the first start for Vick this season. He broke his leg in the preseason and made his season debut last week off the bench against Houston.

"This is a great feeling," Vick said. "We only have three wins but we feel like it's the biggest win all year. ... We can't be more excited."

For most of the night, it was like Vick had never been away.

He ran by and jumped over the Panthers and completed 16 of 33 passes for 179 yards, but his running really stood out. In 14 carries, he put himself third on the quarterback rushing list, which he leads with a 173-yard performance against Minnesota last year.

Carolina had a chance to win the second division title in franchise history thanks to Tampa Bay's win over New Orleans. Instead, the Panthers extended their losing streak to three.

The Panthers had won three overtime games this season, all on the road.

But this night belonged to Vick, who created more excitement than the Falcons have generated all season.

With Atlanta trailing 14-7 in the fourth quarter, Vick rolled left on a sweep, cut across the field and turned on the speed for a 43-yard run to the 13.

Then things got ugly. Vick passed to Justin Griffith, with the ball coming loose after the whistle blew. Vick scooped it up just in case, only to be taken out on a hard hit by 335-pound tackle Kris Jenkins.

Vick hopped off the turf and went after Jenkins, sparking a brief scuffle. Order was restored, and Vick went back to work. On second and goal from the 1, he fooled the Panthers with a play fake, took off around left end and leaped into the end zone with 8:17 left.

On their last drive in regulation, the Falcons moved into field goal range on two passes to Alge Crumpler. But Jay Feely already had missed two kicks, so Atlanta gambled with a pass.

Vick underthrew Crumpler and Deon Grant picked it off at the Carolina 2 with six seconds left.

During pregame introductions, Vick was last to emerge from the tunnel, thumping his chest as he trotted on the field. Atlanta fans waved towels and let out their loudest roar in weeks. Keeping with the theme, singer LeAnn Rimes wore a No.7 jersey while performing the national anthem.

The teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter. T.J. Duckett put the Falcons ahead on a 9-yard run, but the Panthers countered with Delhomme throwing a 16-yard score to Jermaine Wiggins.

Stephen Davis gave the Panthers a 14-7 lead by scoring from the 1 with 41/2 minutes left in the third.

[Last modified December 8, 2003, 01:46:15]

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