One great play could bury the Panthers

ATLANTA -- One play shy of turning their incredible winning streak into a six-pack, just a fourth-down tackle removed from having converted a grotesque 1-7 start to this season into a potential playoff berth, Carolina Panthers players were understandably more sober with disappointment than intoxicated by their heroic accomplishments as they exited the Georgia Dome early Sunday morning.

Play a game that leaks beyond midnight and you always risk the very real possibility that momentum will become a pumpkin, and that the crystal playoff slipper won't fit nearly as snugly anymore, and those are the realities with which the Panthers wearily climbed onto their buses in the wee small hours following a not-so-trivial defeat here.

"It tears your heart out," said second-year cornerback Ricky Manning Jr., after a 34-31 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons that snapped the Panthers' five-game winning skein and put their playoff hopes on a ventilator. "On one hand, you know you have to find a way to recover from a loss like this, because we're not out of [the playoffs] yet. But, man, you can't help but ask yourself how you respond. It's tough, really tough, you know?"

In rallying back from a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter to grab a 31-24 lead with 3:37 to play, Carolina manifested the same kind of indomitable spirit that had been a hallmark of a club essentially written off at the season's midpoint. But then, with fourth-and-goal at the Panthers' 12-yard line, with Carolina needing only one more stop from a defense that had Michael Vick on the run most of the evening, the Atlanta quarterback sprinted through a huge opening in the middle of the field to tie the score with 1:37 left.

If you were a Carolina defender, acknowledged several Panthers veterans from that side of the ball, the Vick score left a sickening feeling and an unmistakable case of déjà vu. In his last five starts against the Panthers, Vick is now 5-0, and he has managed all kinds of magic in divining ways to extend that streak.

His 68 rushing yards on Saturday night gave Vick 355 yards in those five outings, and an average of 8.9 yards per carry. Had the slippery Falcons star just authored that average on his frenetic, last-gasp dash of derring-do, he would have come up short and the Panthers would finally have recovered to the .500 mark for the season, at 7-7.

Instead, at 6-8, they are still mathematically alive for a wild-card berth, but their chances are severely dented. In a relatively quiet Carolina locker room, it was as if a balloon had burst, even if the season was buried among the scattered piles of athletic tape and discarded pads that covered the floor in the visitor's locker room.

The official play-by-play will indicate that the game was decided on Jay Feely's 38-yard field goal just 2:25 into overtime. The winning kick was preceded by an errant throw by Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, a deep ball up the middle that sailed wildly over an outstretched Ricky Proehl and nestled into the gut of Falcons "nickel" corner Aaron Beasley, who returned the interception to the Carolina 23-yard line.

But when the Panthers review this season, especially if the mental inventory takes place while watching the playoffs from in front of a television set, the most haunting image will be of Vick scrambling through the yawning opening and bouncing into the end zone.

"We talk all the time about how a game can come down to one big play," said defensive end Mike Rucker. "People make this game so much more complicated than it really is. The team that makes the most plays wins the game. We make a 'stop' there, we win the game, and the fairy tale story continues. But give Vick credit, because he made the play, and we got the sad-story ending."

The game offered yet another reminder of how much a work in progress Vick continues to be as a quarterback. He completed all of two passes in the first half, and just 11 for the game, and the Atlanta aerial offense is going to have to get a whole lot better real fast if the Falcons are to venture deep into the playoffs. But the outcome also reminded teams that Vick can beat you different ways, some more painful than others.

Make no mistake about it: His heroics were painful enough to the Panthers that they hurt all the way to the bone. Maybe, even, right to the marrow.

Certainly the Panthers, who again fielded a lineup ravaged by injuries, played admirably and essentially thumbed their noses at adversity. They trailed 10-0 early in the second stanza, 24-10 late in the third, but refused to quit. Atlanta owner Arthur Blank spent much of the second half waving a white towel on the sideline, exhorting his team's fans, but the Panthers never showed a white flag.

They tied the score at 24-24 on defensive end Julius Peppers' stunning 60-yard runback of a Vick fumble, then grabbed a 31-24 advantage on a Nick Goings touchdown run of five yards. On the ensuing possession, though, Vick connected with wide receiver Dez White for 54 yards. Two plays later, Vick fumbled when sacked, but the ball bounced through two Carolina defenders and into the hands of Falcons wideout Michael Jenkins. Two snaps after that, Vick scored, barely breaking the plane of the goal line before his knee hit the turf.

"You take your hat off to the guy," said Panthers wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, who continued his career resurrection with 10 catches for 135 yards. "What else can you do?"

Carolina, which had jerry-rigged an offensive lineup of journeymen and backups, and had somehow made it all work, finishes the season at Tampa Bay next Sunday and then home against New Orleans on Jan. 2. Players and coaches suggested the fact the despised Bucs are next on the schedule might help the Panthers recover from Saturday's loss here.

Nobody, it should be noted, sounded all that convincing.

"This team," said Panthers coach John Fox, "has showed a lot of heart. I'm disappointed for these guys, certainly not in them."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.