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Panthers clinch berth, expend little effort vs. Falcons

ATLANTA (AP) -- The Carolina Panthers had just the right opponent
for clinching a trip to the playoffs -- the listless, banged-up
Atlanta Falcons, who seemed more interested with getting started on
the offseason.

DeShaun Foster rushed for 165 yards, including the longest
scoring run in team history, and Jake Delhomme threw for two
touchdowns to lead the Panthers to a 44-11 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Carolina (11-5) clinched one of the two NFC playoff spots still
available going into Week 17, settling for a wild card when Tampa
Bay clinched the South Division title with a win over New Orleans.

The Panthers will travel to New York to play the Giants on
Sunday, coming off the biggest win in the franchise's 11-year-old
history.

"We match up with anybody," Brentson Buckner said. "If they
tell us to come out and play on the moon, we'll play on the moon.
Everything we want to do is still ahead of us. We didn't win the
division, but we're in. We took care of business."

Carolina is going back to the playoffs after reaching the Super
Bowl two seasons ago. The Panthers got off to a 1-7 start last
year, then made a remarkable turnaround to give themselves a
postseason chance going into the final week, but were eliminated by
a 21-18 home loss to the Saints.

"The opportunities we missed last season and the run we made
contributed to all the hard work the guys put in during the
offseason," said Steve Smith, who had nine catches for 131 yards,
including a 42-yard TD.

The Falcons were knocked out of the playoffs the previous week
by an overtime loss at Tampa Bay. In the season finale, Atlanta
completed its second-half collapse and extended one of the most
inglorious streaks in pro sports.

With only two victories in their final eight games, the Falcons
(8-8) not only missed the playoffs after going to the NFC
championship game last season -- they also kept alive the
franchise's failure to post back-to-back winning seasons throughout
its 40-year history.

"It's going to be hard to watch [the playoffs]," linebacker
Keith Brooking said. "It makes me sick to my stomach."

Atlanta trailed 27-3 at halftime and most of the home fans were
gone by the start of the final quarter, leaving a small contingent
of blue-clad fans to chant, "Let's go Panthers!"

The Falcons had nothing to play for -- and it showed. Michael Vick had one carry, finishing with zero yards rushing for the first
time in his career. He wasn't much better through the air, going
15-of-24 for 115 yards, including an interception, after completing
his first eight passes.

"It's not just Mike Vick," he insisted. "I've got other
players around me, other people around me -- coaches who are
supposed to do everything in their power to put everyone in the
offense in a better position. It's not just me."

Carolina scored on its opening possession, taking advantage of a
39-yard pass interference penalty on Omare Lowe that set up
Delhomme's 12-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl. Late in the
fourth quarter, the Panthers finished off the blowout when Ricky Manning scooped up a fumble by Justin Griffith and returned it 8
yards to the end zone.

Foster had a 70-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter on
what appeared to be a routine sweep. He cut back to his right, left
Antuan Edwards grasping at air near the line of scrimmage and blew
by Atlanta's other safety, Keion Carpenter, on his way to the end
zone.

The Falcons were on the verge of being held without a touchdown
for the third time in the last five weeks until backup quarterback
Matt Schaub threw a meaningless 14-yard scoring pass to Roddy White
with 1:18 remaining.

Atlanta, which led the NFL in rushing, was held to 26 yards on
the ground -- the sixth-worst performance in team history and the
first time all season the Falcons failed to reach 100 yards.

"I wouldn't say we let down our fans, but we wanted to go 9-7
and get rid of that 40-year problems we've had," said second-year
coach Jim Mora. "We didn't get that done."

At least Mora was relatively calm after the game. The previous
week, he angrily threw down a headset during an interview with the
team's radio crew after the bitter loss to the Buccaneers.

"I'm upbeat about this football team, I'm upbeat about this
organization," Mora said. "We're putting together a culture here
in Atlanta that will prove to be a winning culture for many, many
years."

Not this year.

Game notes
In another sign of the team's dismal history, the Falcons
followed a winning season with a .500 record for only the second
time. They went 7-6-1 in 1971 and 7-7 the next year. ... The
33-point margin eclipsed the biggest wins in Carolina history, a
pair of 32-point triumphs. ... The two biggest individual rushing
performances against the Falcons came in the final two weeks of the
season. Foster's big day followed Tampa Bay's Cadillac Williams
rushing for 150 yards. ... Carolina swept the season series,
outscoring the Falcons 68-17.