ATLANTA (AP)—The Carolina Panthers had just the right opponent for clinching a trip to the playoffs—the listless, banged-up Atlanta 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 44-11 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Carolina (11-5) clinched one of the two NFC playoff spots still available going into Week 17, settling for a wild card when Tampa Bay clinched the South Division title with a win over New Orleans.
The Panthers will travel to New York to play the Giants on Sunday, coming off the biggest win in the franchise’s 11-year-old history.
“We match up with anybody,” Brentson Buckner said. “If they tell us to come out and play on the moon, we’ll play on the moon. Everything we want to do is still ahead of us. We didn’t win the division, but we’re in. We took care of business.”
Carolina is going back to the playoffs after reaching the Super Bowl two seasons ago. The Panthers got off to a 1-7 start last year, 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.
“The opportunities we missed last season and the run we made contributed to all the hard work the guys put in during the offseason,” said Steve Smith, who had nine catches for 131 yards, including a 42-yard TD.
The Falcons were knocked out of the playoffs the previous week 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.
With only two victories in their final eight games, the Falcons (8-8) not only missed the playoffs after going to the NFC championship game last season— they also kept alive the franchise’s failure to post back-to-back winning seasons throughout its 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 pass to Ricky Proehl. Late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers finished off the blowout when Ricky Manning scooped up a fumble by Justin Griffith and returned it 8 yards to the end zone.
Foster had a 70-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter on what appeared to be a routine sweep. He cut back to his right, left Antuan Edwards grasping at air near the line of scrimmage and blew by Atlanta’s other safety, Keion Carpenter, on his way to the end zone.
The Falcons were on the verge of being held without a touchdown for the third time in the last five weeks until backup quarterback Matt Schaub threw a meaningless 14-yard scoring pass to Roddy White with 1:18 remaining.
Atlanta, which led the NFL in rushing, was held to 26 yards on the ground— the sixth-worst performance in team history and the first time all season the Falcons failed to reach 100 yards.
“I wouldn’t say we let down our fans, but we wanted to go 9-7 and get rid of that 40-year problems we’ve had,” said second-year coach Jim Mora. “We didn’t get that done.”
At least Mora was relatively calm after the game. The previous week, he angrily threw down a headset during an interview with the team’s radio crew after the bitter loss to the Buccaneers.
“I’m upbeat about this football team, I’m upbeat about this organization,” Mora said. “We’re putting together a culture here in Atlanta that will prove to be a winning culture for many, many years.”
Not this year.
In another sign of the team’s dismal history, the Falcons followed a winning season with a .500 record for only the second time. They went 7-6-1 in 1971 and 7-7 the next year. … The 33-point margin eclipsed the biggest wins in Carolina history, a pair of 32-point triumphs. … The two biggest individual rushing performances against the Falcons came in the final two weeks of the season. Foster’s big day followed Tampa Bay’s Cadillac Williams rushing for 150 yards. … Carolina swept the season series, outscoring the Falcons 68-17.