CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Rap music blasted from the showers and the Carolina Panthers danced their way through the locker room. There was no shame in celebrating a 3-0 start to the season.
Especially not after a 23-3 victory Sunday over Atlanta to snap Carolina’s six-game losing streak to the Falcons.
“This was real gratifying after six straight losses and them owning us,” defensive end Brentson Buckner said. “Now we know we can beat them.”
But Buckner was quick to caution his teammates not to celebrate too much— after all, Carolina started 3-0 last season only to go on an eight-game skid.
That’s not likely to happen this year, not after a confidence-building win over Atlanta (1-3).
The Falcons have been the Panthers’ No. 1 nemesis, coming into the game as winners of nine of the last 10 matchups that included two humiliating losses last year by a combined score of 71-0.
“Buckner, our captain, told us we were at the same spot last year at 3-0 and you all know what happened to us after that,” said safety Deon Grant, who had a career-high 12 tackles. “So we’re celebrating now, but not for long. We’ve got to get back to work and back to focusing on the rest of the season.”
Stephen Davis ran for 153 yards and his first touchdown of the season to become the first back in franchise history to open the season with three consecutive 100-yard games.
“We knew they were going to run the ball—I told everyone on the team that he was the best back I had seen on film this year,” Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking said. “They pounded us.”
Davis, written off in Washington last season, now has 406 yards rushing in three games and has turned into the workhorse the Panthers had hoped for. He could have gone after Carolina’s single-game franchise record of 168 yards, but sat most of the fourth quarter after just 21 carries.
“I had a lot more in me,” Davis said with a sly grin. “But I had a little headache, I just didn’t want to tell you guys.”
Davis reeled off a 29-yard run on Carolina’s second possession to set up the Panthers’ first rushing touchdown of the season. He scored on a 1-yard run eight plays later to put Carolina up 7-0.
He never showed any signs of slowing down, adding a 34-yard run late in the third on one of his final carries.
“You run the football like that and it opens up everything else,” said Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, still stuck one game short of 200 victories. “It makes it very difficult and keeps the other teams defense off the field with those long drives.”
Jake Delhomme had his best game as a starter with 168 yards passing and a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl, and John Kasay kicked field goals of 53, 23 and 38 yards as the Panthers handed Atlanta its third-consecutive loss.
The Falcons started last season 1-3 as well, only to rally to a 9-6-1 finish. But they did that last year with star quarterback Michael Vick, who has yet to play this season because of a broken leg.
The prospect of having to mount a similar comeback was frustrating to the Falcons.
“I get tired of working hard during the week and it not happening on the weekend,” cornerback Ray Buchanan said. “We’re 1-3 and it didn’t feel good last year and it doesn’t feel good now.”
The Panthers had no problem stopping backup quarterback Doug Johnson, who struggled to move the Falcons and managing just 267 yards total offense. He completed 14 of 23 passes for 152 yards and was intercepted once.
The only other time the Falcons were in scoring range was in the third quarter when Kemp Rasmussen tipped Feely’s 55-yard field goal attempt for Carolina’s six blocked kick of the season.
T.J. Duckett helped Atlanta move the ball on the ground, running for 100 of the Falcons’ 144 yards rushing, but Duckett gained 41 on an early carry thatfailed to generate any points.
Carolina LB Dan Morgan missed his second consecutive game with a pulled hamstring, the 15th game he has sat out in two-plus seasons because of injury. … Will Witherspoon started at middle linebacker and recorded the first of Carolina’s six sacks. … The Falcons continued to struggle with third-down efficiency, converting just two of 12. … Atlanta had nine penalties for 84yards. … The Falcons failed to sack Delhomme.