Mathis' interception wins it


ATLANTA (AP) -- Michael Vick rolled around left end, looking as
though he was about to run out of bounds. Then -- suddenly -- he cut
back across the width of the field, leaving everyone in his wake.

Forty-three yards later, Vick finally went down.

Welcome back, Michael.

Vick rushed for 141 yards in his first start of the season and
Kevin Mathis scored on a 32-yard interception return in overtime,
leading the Atlanta Falcons past the Carolina Panthers 20-14 Sunday

"It was a blast to be back out there," said Vick, who went
down in the preseason with a broken right leg. "It feels like we
won the Super Bowl."

Vick's rushing total was the third-highest in NFL history by a
quarterback. He, of course, sits atop the list with a 173-yard
performance at Minnesota last season.

"It's unbelievable what he can do," said embattled Falcons
coach Dan Reeves, whose job prospects got a little brighter with
Vick at quarterback.

After Deon Grant picked off Vick's pass at the Carolina 2 to
deny the Falcons (3-10) a chance to win in regulation, the Panthers
(8-5) got the ball first in overtime.

On third down, Jake Delhomme attempted a pass over the middle.
Mathis stepped in front of intended receiver Mushin Muhammad,
picked off the ball and headed the other way.

Delhomme attempted to knock Mathis out of bounds at the 1, but
Mathis dived into the pylon. After calling off the Falcons'
celebration to review the play, referee Bill Carollo ruled Mathis
had scored.

The Falcons -- and Vick -- got to celebrate again, having won
their first home game of the season and denying Carolina a chance
to clinch the NFC South championship.

Most of the night, it was like Vick had never been away. He ran
by and jumped over the Panthers, even showing a feisty streak after
being sidelined for 3{ months.

Vick completed 16 of 33 passes for 179 yards, but it was his
running that stood out. He averaged 10.1 yards on 14 carries,
leaving the Panthers nipping at his heels or just flailing at air.

"You get everybody downfield and he takes off running,"
Carolina safety Mike Minter said. "That's what makes him Michael

Carolina had a chance to win the second division title in
franchise history after New Orleans lost earlier in the day.
Instead, the Panthers lost their third in a row.

Carolina had won three overtime games this season, all on the
road. But this game belonged to Vick, whose first start created
more excitement than the Falcons have generated all season.

Trailing 14-7 in the fourth quarter, Vick took matters into his
own hands. He rolled left on a quarterback sweep, cut all the way
across the field and turned on the speed for a 43-yard run to the
Carolina 13.

It was a play that might have worked in a video game or one of
those farfetched commercials. Only with Vick, it seems anything is

"When the guy runs around like that, what can you do?" Minter
asked. "It looked like the play was dead, and all of a sudden he
was on the other side of the field."

Then things turned a little ugly. Vick passed to Justin
Griffith, with the ball coming loose after the whistle blew. Vick
scooped it up just in case, only to be taken out on a hard hit by
335-pound tackle Kris Jenkins.

Vick hopped off the turf and went after Jenkins, sparking a
brief scuffle. Order was restored, and Vick went back to work. On
second-and-goal from the 1, he fooled the Panthers with a great
play fake, took off around left end and leaped into the end zone
with 8:17 remaining.

"Me and him have been going at it since the first game when I
didn't play," Vick said, referring to a 23-3 loss at Carolina.
"It wasn't dirty. It was just football."

Later, the Falcons moved into field-goal range on Vick's two
passes to Alge Crumpler passes, but Jay Feely already had missed
two kicks, so Atlanta gambled with a pass.

Vick underthrew Crumpler and Grant picked it off at the Carolina
2 with six seconds remaining. That was about the only low point for
the quarterback, who missed the first 11 games.

Vick played two series last week in a 17-13 loss to Houston, but
this was his coming-out.

During pregame introductions, Vick was last to emerge from the
tunnel, thumping his chest as he trotted on the field. The Atlanta
fans, who had seen their team lose its first six home games, waved
towels and let out their loudest roar in weeks. Keeping with the
theme, singer LeAnn Rimes wore a No. 7 jersey while performing the
national anthem.

The teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter. T.J. Duckett
put the Falcons ahead on a 9-yard run, but the Panthers countered
with Delhomme throwing a 16-yard scoring pass to Jermaine Wiggins.

The backup tight end celebrated by placing the ball on the turf,
then delivering an elbow smash like he was a professional wrestler.

Stephen Davis put the Panthers ahead for the first time, bulling
over from the 1 with 4{ minutes left in the third quarter.

Delhomme was 13-of-25 for 153 yards. The Falcons held Davis to
81 yards on 24 carries.

Game notes
Carolina DE Michael Rucker left in the first half with a
knee injury but returned. ... Falcons CB Juran Bolden was carted
off the field with hip and lower back injuries. It wasn't known how
long he might be out. ... Atlanta NT Ellis Johnson picked up his
team-high eighth sack, tops among NFL interior lineman. ...
Carolina came in with the NFC's third-worst red-zone offense but
converted its two chances against the Falcons.


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