Panthers Get a Home Run

The 0-for-Ericsson experience is over.

But just barely.

The Carolina Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons 21-12 for their first home win of the season Sunday night despite a fourth-quarter performance that was as sloppy as the weather.

Playing on a muddy field, the Panthers fumbled twice in the final 10 minutes, then gave up a long drive to Atlanta.

What had been a comfortable 21-6 lead turned into a nail-biter.

But a fumble by the Falcons sealed it.

Atlanta quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver dropped the ball at the 2 with 78 seconds remaining and cornerback Eric Davis recovered, securing a victory that almost slipped away.

The Panthers raised their record to 4-4, ending a tumultuous first half of the season on an uplifting note and putting them in position to make a run at a playoff berth.

Carolina's record matches four other teams as the fifth-best in the NFC. Six will make the playoffs.

``We've made some improvement in our football team the past several weeks,'' said coach Dom Capers. ``The key to our season is what happens from this point forward.''

The win over Atlanta (1-7) featured the long-awaited arrival of Tshimanga Biakabutuka as a star-quality NFL back. Biakabutuka rushed for 104 yards on 23 carries, including two flash-dance touchdown runs of 12 and 26 yards.

Biakabutuka, the Panthers' first-round draft pick in 1996, was starting for the first time since a season-ending knee injury 13 months ago at Jacksonville. He had not previously run for 100 yards or scored a touchdown as a pro.

``Tshimanga showed some spark tonight,'' said Capers.

He allowed the Panthers to end an 0-3 streak this season at Ericsson Stadium, where they'd lost to Washington, Kansas City and San Francisco.

Biakabutuka didn't finish the game the way he would have liked. His fumble at the 7 with 10:38 remaining was recovered by Devin Bush and gave the Falcons a chance to battle back from a 21-6 deficit.

The way the defense responded -- with a goal-line stand -- was critical.

The Falcons got nowhere in four plays, turning the ball over on downs.

Another fumble on the next Carolina possession gave the Falcons the ball on the Panthers 27 -- and Atlanta didn't blow that opportunity.

With 6:41 left, the Falcons scored on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Billy Joe Tolliver to Jamal Anderson to close to 21-12. A two-point conversion attempt failed.

The Falcons weren't finished, however.

Atlanta drove to the Carolina 2 in the final minutes, but lost its chance to draw closer when Tolliver fumbled.

``The way we played tonight was a little bit exemplary of the first half of our season,'' Capers said. ``There were certainly some ups and downs.''

The Panthers' offense started hot, driving for a score on its opening possession for the first time this season.

Biakabutuka provided the juice, rushing six times for 40 yards in a nine-play drive and getting the score on a 12-yard run.

It was a beauty -- a highlight-film way for Biakabutuka to score the first touchdown of his NFL career.

He ran into the middle of the line and into a crowd, then did a 360-degree move into the open and sprinted into the end zone.

The 59-yard drive was by far the Panthers' best opening possession of the season. In their previous seven games, they had totaled 84 yards on their first drives.

Good field position set up Carolina's second score.

After a shanked punt by Dan Stryzinski traveled 27 yards and went out of bounds at the Falcons 40, the Panthers got moving again.

Two completions by quarterback Kerry Collins in third-and-long situations got Carolina into the end zone.

The first was a 15-yarder to Rocket Ismail when the Panthers faced third-and-11 at the Falcons 27.

Two players later, on third-and-14, Collins zipped a pass to Mark Carrier in the middle of the end zone for a touchdown. John Kasay's extra point raised the lead to 14-0.

Atlanta cut the lead to 14-3 at halftime, but picked up only four first-half first downs with rookie Tony Graziani starting at quarterback.

Graziani struggled so badly that Tolliver replaced him in the second half

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