CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The company line that followed Atlanta's 15-10 victory at Carolina Sunday afternoon was, "Who cares? We won."
Never mind that Atlanta failed to turn two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a safety, a blocked field goal and a blocked punt into anything more than five points. "Who cares? We won," said offensive tackle Ephraim Salaam.
Never mind that the biggest offensive play of the game was Jamal Anderson's fumble that wound up turning into a safety against the Panthers. "We won and that's what counts," said fullback Bob Christian.
Never mind that place-kicker Morten Andersen left 50- and 47-yard field goals short. "It doesn't matter. We won," said cornerback Ashley Ambrose.
Never mind that Atlanta only had 262 total yards against a defense that was ranked 28th out of 31 teams in the National Football League. "Who cares? We won," said offensive tackle Bob Whitfield.
Atlanta improved to 2-1 overall -- and more importantly, 2-0 in the NFC West -- by getting help, from of all places, its defense. The Falcons had the 29th-worst defense in the league, but they forced four turnovers, got four sacks and had Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein guessing wrong all afternoon before 66,498 guests at Ericsson Stadium.
"We took offense to the way we were playing defense," said linebacker Keith Brooking. "There's no better feeling in the world than to have a defensive effort like this and win. It's still a long road and we've got to get better. If we continue to grow up like we did today, we're going to be all right."
Carolina had 284 total yards, including a frustrating 21 of 37 effort by Beuerlein that included 241 yards, two interceptions and four sacks.
"We confused them a lot with our coverages," Brooking said. "We made things simple and they didn't think we'd stick with it."
Up next are the World Champion St. Louis Rams, who improved to 3-0 by beating San Francisco 41-24 Sunday with a 530-yard assault in total offense. Next Sunday's winner in the Georgia Dome will lead the NFC West standings.
"It didn't look pretty, and it wasn't pretty," said quarterback Chris Chandler after hitting 21 of 27 passes for 174 yards. "The defense really played well and bailed us out. Now the World Champions come to town. The winner next week takes the lead (in the division). They all don't have to be pretty. All that counts is, we won."
The Falcons did everything possible not to win. Fortunately, Carolina did more things to lose. The Panthers opened the game with an interception, a blocked field goal and a fumble on its first three possessions, but all Atlanta could get out of it was a 31-yard Andersen field goal.
Jamal Anderson, three games into his return from major re-constructive surgery on his right knee, rambled off left end for a 26-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to make it 10-0. After the score, Anderson opted to brush his right knee in a symbolic gesture instead of doing his more-familiar Dirty Bird dance.
Carolina, now 1-2, made it interesting with a 33-yard Richie Cunningham field goal and a 9-yard pass from Beuerlein to Muhsin Muhammad in the final 6:35 to send the teams into the locker room at halftime tie, 10-10.
Andersen kicked a 27-yard field goal with 4:29 remaining after a Falcons drive stalled at the 10-yardline, six inches from a first down.
Then came the play the defined the strange nature of the entire afternoon:
Anderson rolled around left end for 42 yards down to the Panthers' 10-yardline. As he fought off one tackler with his right arm, cornerback Doug Evans knocked the ball out of Anderson's arm. The ball bounced to the 3, where Evans picked it up and continued to run through the side of the Falcons' end zone.
"I didn't want Eugene (Robinson) to push me out of bounds, so I kind of slowed down to bring him to me and set him up for the stiff-arm, which went well," Anderson said after running for 97 yards on 22 carries. "I hadn't anticipated Doug coming like that. He made a great play. He made a really, really great play. Someone was looking out for me. My hard work paid off. I got a call that went my way. We kind of got lucky."
Referee Larry Nemmers said the rules state there's no forward momentum on a fumble. And once Evans gained control of the fumble with both feet in bounds -- which instant replay confirmed -- his run through the end zone was deemed a safety.
"On the challenge, it looked like he clearly has both feet in," Nemmers said. "There's no momentum on a fumble. There is on interception, but on a fumble there is no momentum. That means the Carolina player carried the ball into the end zone on his own accord, and then, of course, it's a safety."
The Falcons got two points for the safety and possession of the ball to run out the clock.
"That was the type of game where something like that should have happened," Chandler said. "It was a strange game."
But who cares? The only thing that mattered to the Falcons was the win.