Falcons fall to Panthers

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -— Steve Smith broke two tackles and raced 56 yards for a touchdown, then did perhaps his most important work.

Nearly two months after he broke teammate Ken Lucas' nose with a sucker punch in training camp, Smith retrieved the ball and handed it to Lucas on the sideline.

Smith's first touchdown following his two-game suspension was part of a dominating day as the cohesive Carolina Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons 24-9 on Sunday.

Jake Delhomme had a mistake-free day, Smith and Muhsin Muhammad combined for 243 yards receiving and two scores, and Carolina (3-1) shut down the league's top rushing unit on a day when the Panthers showed no effects from that ugly day in training camp.

The Panthers held Michael Turner, who came in as the league's top back with 336 yards rushing, to 56 yards on 18 carries. Matt Ryan threw for only 158 yards, and the Falcons (2-2) remained winless on the road.

Muhammad, who had eight catches for 147 yards, caught a 36-yard TD pass from Delhomme early in the fourth quarter for the final margin. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for 109 yards rushing. The Panthers didn't turn it over and recovered after losing both starting tackles to injury.

But the key play happened late in the second quarter.

After cornerback Chris Houston bit on a play-action fake, Delhomme found an open Smith over the middle. He started celebrating early and was nearly caught by Houston before reaching the end zone to make it 14-6.

Smith emphatically spiked the ball, which sailed into the stands. But Smith then hurried over and asked the fan for the ball back. The fan obliged and Smith took it to the sideline and handed it to Lucas.

Smith had long ago apologized and Lucas had insisted he had forgiven Smith for punching him in the face as Lucas was on one knee. The gesture was another signal of how the incident has brought the Panthers closer after last year's disappointing 7-9 season.

The Falcons have had even more off-field problems with Michael Vick's dogfighting conviction and coach Bobby Petrino's resignation during an ugly 4-12 campaign in 2007. But their quick start this year — helped by beating woeful Detroit and Kansas City at home — was derailed on Sunday as the Falcons struggled to move the ball and their young secondary was exposed.

Houston and Brent Grimes struggled to contain Smith and Muhammad, Ryan didn't throw an interception, but the Falcons managed only three Jason Elam field goals.


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