ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons did everything they could do offensively to lose Sunday. They missed two field goals, fumbled the ball away at the Carolina 1-yardline and had a touchdown run called back by a penalty.
And yet they won.
Atlanta's defense, which has been ripped apart by big plays and injuries all year, turned the game against the Panthers into a personal matter. They forced four turnovers -- including three on Carolina's final three possessions -- and held the visitors to four Joe Nedney field goals in four trips inside the Atlanta 30-yard line to help the Falcons snap a five-game losing streak, 13-12.
"When you lose five games, you need to develop short memory," defensive end Brady Smith said. "We forgot about what's happened to us this year, and we let it fly. We took things personal out there. This is how you're supposed to earn your keep."
Carolina quarterback Steve Beuerlein spent as much time laying on his back has he did standing upright. Smith, defensive tackles Ed Jasper and Travis Hall, and defensive end Patrick Kerney sacked the beleaguered quarterback four times and knocked him down another nine times.
"Every time I looked over at Jasper, he was laying on top of Beuerlein," Smith said. "It was great."
The secondary was just as tough on him. Ashley Ambrose had one interception and Ray Buchanan had two, including one on the Panthers' final play at the Atlanta 3-yard line. Buchanan had a third interception negated by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Jasper.
"We went out there and proved ourselves," Buchanan said. "I look forward to competing like that when the game's on the line. I'm one of those guys on this football team who loves the challenge of making a big play. We showed a lot of character because this team has been through a lot of things."
The Falcons (3-6) were without middle linebacker Jessie Tuggle for only the fourth game in his 14-year career. He was placed on the injured reserve list Wednesday and will undergo knee surgery in two weeks.
Starting weak-side linebacker Keith Brooking was out with a sore ankle, and starting tackle Shane Dronett is out with a severe knee injury.
And yet, Atlanta's patchwork defense of rookies, free agent rejects and practice team players gelled to keep Carolina from getting on track. The Panthers rushed for only 30 yards while Beuerlein threw for only 179 yards.
"When you're struggling like we are, when you're your own worst enemy, a game like this is a good win," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said. "Give our young linebackers credit. We stiffened every time they got down there close. We got some turnovers that helped us win. They're good young linebackers. Like Jessie told them during the week, they needed to take advantage of their opportunities.
"Our offense, we've got to keep plugging along. When you've lost five in a row, this game is one of the prettiest I've ever seen."
Rookie Mark Simoneau; second-year players Jeff Kelly and Chris Draft ; and Henri Crockett, a third-year player returning for his first game since spraining his ankle three weeks ago, gave the Falcons a lift at linebacker. Their ability to collectively replace Tuggle and Brooking provided Atlanta with the lift it's been missing during the losing streak. Kelly led all others with seven tackles.
"Those guys made plays, and we didn't," Carolina fullback Williams Floyd said. "We should have taken care of business, and we didn't."
The Panthers, now 3-5, led 6-3 at halftime on a pair of Nedney field goals -- the first from 35 yards out, the second from 48. The Falcons managed only a 35-yard field goal from Morten Andersen.
The lead stretched to 12-3 with 12:40 remaining on 25- and 24-yard field goals by Nedney before Atlanta scored the only touchdown of the game -- a 2-yard run by Jamal Anderson.
Andersen then added a 31-yard field goal with 2:53 to play to give the Falcons a one-point cushion, but he later missed a 42-yarder with 55 seconds remaining that gave Carolina one last chance. But on the Panthers' final drive, Wiley got a sack, and Buchanan wrapped up the win with an interception on the final play.
Atlanta had 281 total yards, including 90 rushing yards from Anderson. Chandler completed 19 of 29 passes for 184 yards, but he also threw two interceptions.
"That is about as brutal a loss as they come," Carolina coach George Seifert said. "Right now for this team it is about as tough as it gets. I can't imagine that it can get much tougher than this."
That might happen for both teams next week when Carolina travels to St. Louis, the defending Super Bowl champions, and Atlanta remains at home to play Tampa Bay.
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