CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Warrick Dunn figured Atlanta’s dominating performance over Super Bowl favorite Carolina would come as a surprise.
“Most people didn’t think we could do that,” said Dunn after he rushed for 132 yards in the Falcons’ 20-6 win over the Panthers on Sunday. “We’ve added some guys who have been to the Pro Bowl. There’s an emphasis to get to the next level.”
The Falcons were accused of not giving a complete effort—a theory Vick affirmed when he said in the offseason he didn’t try his hardest in Atlanta’s final regular-season game.
“You’ve barely heard about Atlanta all offseason and I think that’s good for us,” Abraham said. “We were 8-8 last year and a lot of guys had us in a slump.”
In the offseason, the Falcons acquired Abraham from the New York Jets and signed Grady Jackson away from Green Bay. The revamped line dominated the Panthers, who were held to 215 yards as they played without all-Pro receiver Steve Smith, inactive with a right hamstring injury.
“We’ve got three Pro Bowl pass rushers on this team. If we didn’t come here and hit the quarterback a lot, I would have been surprised,” said Abraham, who limped off the field late in the game with a groin injury. He said the injury wasn’t serious.
Atlanta also rolled on offense, finishing with 252 yards rushing.
Carolina, which had the third-rated defense a year ago, fell flat to begin a season with high expectations after last season’s loss in the NFC championship game.
“What did we give up in the running game? That was ridiculous,” said defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, playing in his first game after knee surgery. “It wasn’t the Super Bowl, but it was a division game and a conference game. They kicked our tails. I’m not proud of it, but I’m being honest.”
Vick, trying to silence critics after throwing 13 interceptions last season, threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler late in the third quarter for a 20-6 lead. Crumpler outmuscled Panthers linebacker Chris Draft, who in training camp called Vick just an average passer who gets hit a lot.
Atlanta took a 13-3 halftime lead, getting the only touchdown of the half late when Vick did what he does best: improvise.
Vick rolled toward the left sideline, drawing the defense to him before dumping a short pass to Michael Jenkins. He broke Ken Lucas’ tackle along the sideline and raced 34 yards for a touchdown with 28 seconds left.
“I’m just comfortable with everything that we are doing with our scheme,” Vick said. “I spent a lot of time this offseason working with our offense and just trying to put myself in a position where I can be effective with every snap.”
The Panthers generated 89 yards offense in the first half—fitting because they were missing No. 89, quarterback Jake Delhomme’s primary target last season. Smith, inactive with a right hamstring injury, was the league’s top receiver last season with 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns.
After missing most of training camp with a strained left hamstring and an ingrown toenail, the 2005 co-Comeback Player of the Year pulled up lame in practice with a right hamstring injury.
“He’s a big part of our offense, but still, that’s not an excuse for this performance,” Delhomme said.
The Panthers went to their newest option, veteran Keyshawn Johnson, for an 8-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage. But Johnson had only four catches for 40 yards and Delhomme was 21-of-36 for 186 yards and an interception. The Panthers didn’t convert a third down chance until early the fourth quarter.
The Panthers were further hampered when left tackle Travelle Wharton left in the second quarter with a left knee strain. It forced the Panthers to make several moves to the right combination to contain Abraham.
“We had a similar game plan as we had in the past, but we had some new people out there when Dan Morgan went down and we just didn’t execute as well,” coach John Fox said.
Notes:@ The Panthers have lost three straight season openers, all at home. … Drew Carter started in place of Smith and had five catches for 62 yards. … Falcons linebacker Ed Hartwell, who had arthroscopic surgery on both knees in the preseason, did not play. Keith Brooking moved to middle linebacker and Demorrio Williams started at outside linebacker.