ATLANTA – Michael Turner scored four touchdowns in what has been a career year, but the Atlanta Falcons have gotten used to their running back coming up big.
They never could've imagined what Harry Douglas was going to do Sunday.
The rookie receiver scored his first career touchdown on a 7-yard end around, caught a 69-yard pass that set up a TD, then finished off the Carolina Panthers with a 61-yard punt return that carried the Falcons to a 45-28 win in a game they couldn't afford to lose in the NFC South.
Bouncing back from its first home loss, Atlanta (7-4) jumped out to a 17-0 lead, endured a Carolina comeback and blew it open in the fourth quarter to close within a game of the division lead.
The Falcons would have faced a huge hole with another loss, but Turner and Douglas made sure it didn't happen.
Turner went over 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career and scored his first three TDs on power runs of 1, 4 and 1 yards – the last of those on fourth down when the Falcons decided to go for it instead of settle for a field goal that would have given them just a six-point lead with about 7 minutes to go.
After Turner's third TD made it 31-21, the Falcons' defense stuffed Carolina deep in its own territory. Jason Barker got off a booming punt, but that merely gave Douglas some time to decide what he wanted to do. He surveyed the field for a split-second, took off suddenly to his left, then cut back right through a huge hole.
Barker was the last man with a chance, but Douglas merely pointed at him the final 10 yards before leaping into the Georgia Dome stands to celebrate.
Turner rambled for a 16-yard touchdown in the final minute, his fourth score of the season, tying T.J. Duckett's team record and 13th score overall equaling Gerald Riggs' franchise record. Turner finished with 117 yards on 24 carries, his fifth 100-yard game of the season.
Douglas had the best game of his career by far, and he did it after two crucial drops in a September loss at Carolina. He caught four balls this time for 92 yards, had three punt returns for 93 yards and scored the Falcons' first touchdown after taking a pitch from quarterback Matt Ryan and outrunning everyone to the corner.
Carolina put up some huge numbers, but couldn't overcome a terrible start. Atlanta had a 17-0 lead before the Panthers had a first down.
Jake Delhomme was 21-of-35 for 295 yards, hooking up with Steve Smith on eight passes for 168 yards. DeAngelo Williams rushed for 101 yards on 19 carries.
Douglas set up Atlanta's second touchdown with a 27-yard punt return, and the Falcons led 17-3 at the half. But Carolina took the third-quarter kickoff and ripped off an 80-yard drive in just five plays. Smith got loose for catches of 41 and 22 yards before Williams took it in from the 5.
The Panthers closed to 17-13 on their next possession, a more-methodical 55-yard drive that took 12 plays and more than 9½ minutes off the clock. Williams rambled for 21 yards on third-and-nine and the Panthers again got close before having to send on John Kasay for his second field goal, a chip shot from 21 yards.
With their lead in jeopardy, the Falcons went to a no-huddle offense that paid huge dividends. Michael Jenkins caught a 19-yard pass on third-and-10, and Turner rumbled to the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Falcons finished with a season high for points.