Just Out Of Reach

Breakdowns in every facet keep Panthers from victory

This kickoff party was a flop.

On the first day of what's supposed to be a refreshing new season, the Carolina Panthers went belly up in a 19-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Ericsson Stadium.

In coachspeak, it was a total team loss.

The special teams were destructively bad, giving up a safety and a blocked punt that led to a Falcons field goal. Those two plays amounted to five Atlanta points, the margin of defeat.

The defense, packed with millionaire acquisitions, surrendered a 98-yard touchdown drive and failed to stop the Falcons 11 times on third down.

The offense managed just 54 yards rushing and committed a turnover at the Atlanta 2.

Coach Dom Capers did his best to hold a chin-up news conference after the game, but it was obvious the defeat jolted him.

``Today's loss is very disappointing, but it's a long season,'' he said. ``Many things will happen over the next 15 weeks, and these seasons are always roller coaster rides.''

Said cornerback Eric Davis: ``This was an ugly, ugly bump in the road.''

Only time will tell how much the loss knocks the Panthers playoff aspirations out of alignment.

Suddenly, next week's game at New Orleans against a Saints team that beat St. Louis on Sunday doesn't look so easy. Among the formidable opponents ahead are Green Bay, San Francisco twice, Tampa Bay, Miami and Dallas.

``This was one of the games we had to have -- a divisional opponent at home,'' wide receiver Mark Carrier said.

Tight end Wesley Walls said the team had hoped for a debut similar to their 1996 season opener, a convincing home win over Atlanta that was the first step toward the NFC West championship.

``There were a lot of similarities to the '96 season,'' Walls said. ``We had a good training camp like we did then and we feel like our attitude is similar to that.

``But we didn't play special today. We played awful.''

Injuries that decimated the depth on the Panthers offensive and defensive lines certainly didn't help. Playing center was Paul Janus, an undrafted rookie who was a college tackle. At left defensive end was Tim Morabito, a natural nose tackle.

And both of them were unable to finish the game, Janus because of a pinched nerve and Morabito due to leg cramps.

The Panthers' trouble started just as they looked poised to take the lead.

With no score in the game, quarterback Kerry Collins passed the offense from the Carolina 33 to the Atlanta 10. There, on first-and-goal, he zipped a pass to his right to Mark Carrier, who was wide open at the Falcons 2.

But what could have been an easy touchdown turned into an interception. The ball hit Carrier's left shoulder, bounced high into the air and was picked off by Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan.

``Anytime you have an error in a situation like that, it's a killer,'' Capers said.

Carrier said a bump from Falcons linebacker Cornelius Bennett kept him from making the catch.

``It was a timing thing,'' Carrier said. ``Kerry's throw was right on time, but because of Cornelius, it disrupted my timing. I didn't even see the ball coming.''

And the Panthers defense never would have guessed what it had coming.

The Falcons took over at their 2. Then Atlanta quarterback Chris Chandler ripped off a series of pass completions.

He hit Tony Martin for 34 yards, Terance Mathis for 12 and 13, and Martin again for 22. On third-and-6 from the Carolina 11, Mathis got wide open in the right corner of the end zone and Chandler hit him for the touchdown and a 7-0 lead.

Davis said the defense had communication problems on the play.

Capers bristled when asked about the 98-yard drive.

``That shouldn't happen to our defense,'' he said.

The Panthers rallied in the final minutes of the first half with a 62-yard drive that featured a 47-yard pass from Collins to Rae Carruth.

That pass set up a 6-yard touchdown throw from Collins to tight end Wesley Walls 1:53 before halftime, tying the score 7-7.

It stayed that way until the Panthers punt team suffered the first of two critical breakdowns.

Midway through the third quarter, rookie deep snapper Jerry Jensen hiked the ball over the head of punter Ken Walter and into the end zone. All Walter could do was recover it for a safety, putting Atlanta ahead 9-7.

Less than five minutes later, the Falcons struck again with a 44-yard touchdown pass from Chandler to rookie Tim Dwight.

Dwight not only burned the Panthers secondary, he turned it to toast.

But Atlanta's 16-7 lead lasted only 21 seconds.

Carolina responded on its first play after Atlanta's score. Collins froze cornerback Buchanan with a pump fake that allowed receiver Rocket Ismail to break free down the left sideline.

Collins' pass was perfect. Ismail caught it in stride and ran into the end zone for a 56-yard touchdown that brought the Panthers to within 16-14.

The Panthers' chances of continuing their comeback suffered a severe blow when Atlanta's Juran Bolden broke through and snuffed out a punt attempt by Walter.

That gave the Falcons the ball on the Carolina 42. Seven plays later, Morten Andersen booted a 43-yard field goal to increase Atlanta's lead to 19-14.

Collins almost pulled out a miracle win. Despite having no timeouts, he drove the Panthers from their 12 to the Atlanta 36 in the final 62 seconds.

The outcome rested on one final play from the 36 -- a Hail Mary pass into the right corner of the end zone.

Collins lofted the pass and, just as an offense wants in that situation, the ball was deflected and was up for grabs. Ismail came within inches of making a diving catch, but couldn't.

In that instant, when the clock ran out, the Panthers began counting the cost of a dark day.

``We put ourselves in a hole,'' Davis said. ``Now we've got to fight to get out.