Originally created 09/07/98

Falcons halt late assault in win



CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Linebacker Jessie Tuggle is in his 12th season with the Atlanta Falcons. For the first time in a career that includes four Pro Bowl berths, a couple of playoff appearances and more losing than he would care to remember, Tuggle won an opening game on the road Sunday.

"It's a huge win," Tuggle said Sunday after the Falcons withstood a late assault and upset the Carolina Panthers 19-14 at Ericsson Stadium. "The way guys were coming in congratulating each other, you'd think we had won the division or the conference."

Indeed, there was enough whooping, hollering and even hugging by the Falcons as they entered their lockerroom to think trophies were going to be handed out.

"Chalk it up!" defensive tackle Shane Dronett yelled as he approached the doorway.

"Lucky as (bleep)," end Chuck Smith added, referring to the fact his team survived a Kerry Collins Hail Mary pass from the Falcons' 37 on the last play that was tipped by receiver Muhsin Muhammad and nearly caught by teammate Rocket Ismail.

"You play sound defense, kicking game and field position and run the ball, you win," Smith said later. "I've been saying that for the last five years here."

The Falcons won their road opener for the first time since beating New Orleans 31-10 in the first game of the 1986 season. They also won for the fifth time in seven games on the road dating back to last October, a positive sign for second-year coach Dan Reeves considering the fact the franchise was 16-66 on the road from 1987 through the first two road games last year.

Overall, the Falcons are 7-2 since the halfway point of last year.

"We beat Carolina, which we did not do last year," Reeves said. "Now we've got a win against a division opponent on the road, and that's a good way to start the year."

The Falcons got a solid performance from quarterback Chris Chandler, who only played in two of eight quarters against Carolina last year because of two separate concussions. One day after signing a five-year, $27 million contract, Chandler completed 17 of 33 passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Terance Mathis in the second quarter and a 44-yarder to rookie Tim Dwight in the third period.

Chandler was sacked six times, including three by Kevin Greene, but looked no worse for the wear.

Jamal Anderson rushed for 88 yards, with 67 coming in a second half in which the Falcons held the ball for 17:38 to the Panthers' 12:22.

"I've always prided myself on getting stronger as the game goes on," Anderson said. "They say the great backs get better late in the game when you have to run the ball to win."

Carolina nearly pulled out a win despite key injuries on both sides of the ball. Collins looked sharp at times in his team's new "West Coast"-style passing attack. He completed a 47-yard pass to Rae Carruth in the second quarter to set up a 6-yard TD pass to tight end Wesley Walls, and he threw a 56-yard scoring strike to Ismail in the third quarter.

Nine different Panthers caught passes, led by Ismail with six catches for 119 yards.

"We have a long way to go," said Panthers coach Dom Capers, whose team spent an NFL record $27 million on first-year compensation for unrestricted free agents this spring. "Some of the facets of our game today were OK, and other areas we need improvement on."

Both teams made costly mistakes. Atlanta was penalized 11 times for 72 yards, including two holding calls on kick returns. Carolina was forced to take a safety on a bad punt snap and had another shanked punt blocked by Juran Bolden. Also, Collins was intercepted at the Falcons' 1-yard line by Ray Buchanan after the ball glanced off receiver Mark Carrier's hands.

"We could have played 100 percent better," said the Falcons' Smith. "But we hung in there and got a win. We pulled it out as a team, and that's what we have to do every week."