Still, they managed to get out of Atlanta with a victory, largely because DeAngelo Hall lost his cool.
The Falcons’ Pro Bowl cornerback picked up three penalties for 67 yards on Carolina’s tying drive, and David Carr came on in relief of Jake Delhomme to lead the Panthers to their final 10 points in a 27-20 victory Sunday.
Harrington had his best day since taking over for Michael Vick, throwing for 361 yards and two touchdowns. Still, it wasn’t enough to keep Atlanta (0-3) from its worst start since 1999, when the Falcons lost their first four after reaching the Super Bowl the previous season.
“We played well offensively,” Harrington said. “But we need to do more.”
DeShaun Foster rushed for 122 yards and scored a couple of TDs, which helped the Panthers (2-1) overcome the loss of Delhomme late in the third quarter. He came off after hurting his elbow on a previous possession, but doesn’t think the injury is serious.
Enter Carr, the top overall pick in 2002 who flopped in Houston. He finished off the go-ahead touchdown drive, then guided the Panthers to a field goal that made it 27-17.
“It was good to get out there,” said Carr, who completed 3 of 4 passes for 56 yards.
Atlanta went ahead 17-10 on Harrington’s second TD pass, a 13-yarder to Alge Crumpler early in the third quarter. On Carolina’s next possession, Hall let his temper and Steve Smith get the best of him.
The two stars had been jawing at each other the entire game, with Hall holding the upper hand in the first half. However, on the first play from scrimmage after the Falcons went ahead, Delhomme threw deep down the sideline for Smith. Clearly beaten, Hall had no choice except to drag down the receiver for a 37-yard interference penalty.
Apparently frustrated, Hall gave Smith a shove to the upper chest on the next play, drawing a 15-yard personal foul. Then, with Carolina apparently forced into a field-goal try after Delhomme was sacked, Hall drew an unsportsmanlike penalty for continuing to jabber at Smith.
That gave the Panthers an automatic first down, and they quickly punched it in for the tying TD, Delhomme’s 5-yard pass to Jeff King. Hall even got into it with his own coach, Bobby Petrino, before being dragged away by a couple of teammates.
“I felt like I was on the bad end of the stick,” Hall said. “I felt like a lot of calls could have gone either way. They all went against me.”
Petrino considered yanking Hall out of the game, but let him finish.
“DeAngelo understands that’s not something we do,” the first-year coach said. “We were in a position where we had a chance to win the game, and that (last) penalty gave them an opportunity to score a touchdown.”
Smith piled on, clearly relishing his role in Hall’s meltdown.
“He took a cheap shot at me,” the receiver said. “That’s the kind of player he is.”
Hall’s antics clearly turned the momentum in Carolina’s favor, even though Delhomme went out on the next possession. He threw a short pass and quickly motioned to the sideline, even dropping to a knee before he could get there.
Delhomme said it wasn’t as bad as it looked, though he will undergo X-rays when he gets back home.
“It was just kind of bothering me a little bit,” he said. “I didn’t want to be macho.”
After Delhomme went down, Carr completed a short pass, took a roughing the passer penalty, then handed off to Foster for a 10-yard touchdown run that put the Panthers ahead to stay.
In their home opener—and first regular-season game since Vick pleaded guilty to running a dogfighting operation—the Falcons couldn’t complain after the play of No. 7’s replacement.
Harrington had one of the best games of his career, completing 31 of 44 passes with no interceptions and only one sack. That was huge improvement over his first two games, which were marred by a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns and 13 sacks.
The Falcons managed only 10 points in those losses and signed former Jacksonville starter Byron Leftwich early in the week, a clear sign that Harrington’s job was not secure. But he threw a 69-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White in the second quarter, then put Atlanta ahead again with the throw to Crumpler.
Carolina scored the next 17 points, but Harrington refused to put all the blame on Hall.
“That’s part of the ebb and flow,” the quarterback said. “You’ve got to play through that stuff.”
After 47-year-old Morten Andersen, the NFL’s oldest player and leading career scorer, kicked his second field goal for Atlanta, Foster ran out the clock by ramming through the Falcons’ weary defense.
Foster also caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Delhomme.
White had his best game as a pro, catching 7 passes for 127 yards. … The Panthers improved to 24-18 on the road under coach John Fox, a better mark than they have at home (22-19). … The Panthers rushed for 175 yards, while the Falcons were held below 100 yards for the third straight game. They had only one such game a year ago.