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Panthers seal bid, Falcons flop
Published January 2, 2006
ATLANTA - The Panthers had just the right opponent for clinching a trip to the playoffs - the listless, banged-up Falcons, who seemed more interested with getting started on the offseason.
DeShaun Foster rushed for 165 yards, including the longest scoring run in team history, and Jake Delhomme threw for two touchdowns to lead the Panthers to a rout.
Carolina clinched one of the two NFC playoff spots available going into Week 17, settling for a wild card when Tampa Bay clinched the South Division by beating New Orleans. The Panthers travel to New York to play the Giants on Sunday.
"We match up with anybody," Panthers defensive tackle Brentson Buckner said. "If they tell us to come out and play on the moon, we'll play on the moon."
Carolina is going back to the playoffs after reaching the Super Bowl two seasons ago. The Panthers started 1-7 last season, then made a remarkable turnaround to give themselves a postseason chance going into the final week, but were eliminated by a 21-18 home loss to the Saints.
Steve Smith had nine catches for 131 yards, including a 42-yard score.
The Falcons were knocked out of the playoffs on Christmas Eve by an overtime loss at Tampa Bay. In the season finale, Atlanta completed its second-half collapse and extended one of the most inglorious streaks in pro sports.
By finishing 2-6 the Falcons (8-8) not only missed the playoffs after going to the NFC Championship Game last season, they failed to post consecutive winning seasons - and have never done so in their 40-year history.
"It's going to be hard to watch (the playoffs)," linebacker Keith Brooking said. "It makes me sick to my stomach."
Atlanta trailed 27-3 at halftime and most of the home fans were gone by the start of the final quarter, leaving a small contingent of blue-clad fans to chant, "Let's go Panthers!"
The Falcons had nothing to play for - and it showed. Michael Vick had one carry, finishing with zero yards rushing for the first time in his career. He wasn't much better through the air, going 15-of-24 for 115 yards, including an interception, after completing his first eight passes.
"It's not just Mike Vick," he insisted. "I've got other players around me, other people around me - coaches who are supposed to do everything in their power to put everyone in the offense in a better position. It's not just me."
Carolina scored on its opening possession, taking advantage of a 39-yard pass interference penalty on Omare Lowe that set up Delhomme's 12-yard touchdown to Ricky Proehl. Late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers finished off the blowout when Ricky Manning returned a fumble by Justin Griffith 8 yards to the end zone.
NOTABLE: The 33-point margin eclipsed the biggest wins in Carolina history, a pair of 32-point triumphs.