Rock bottom

Panthers allow record 51 points to drop to 0-4

The good thing about nightmares is eventually you wake up and realize your terror isn't real.

There was no such relief for the Carolina Panthers after their Sunday disaster. They sunk to the lowest point in franchise history with a 51-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

``What I feel inside, there are no words for,'' fullback William Floyd said.

There was no shortage of descriptions in the locker room for how the Panthers played.

``We were inept,'' coach Dom Capers said.

``We were horrible,'' quarterback Kerry Collins said.

Atlanta's 51 points were by far the most Carolina has allowed in its four-year history, topping by 14 the 37 scored last week by the Green Bay Packers.

It marked the first time in Capers' 13 years as an NFL assistant and head coach that he has been on a team that allowed an opponent 50 points.

``I don't remember feeling the way I feel right now,'' Capers said.

Just imagine how Panthers owner Jerry Richardson felt.

``He's miserable,'' linebacker Kevin Greene said. ``I know he is.''

The Panthers embarrassed themselves repeatedly, committing six turnovers -- so many Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said it was ``impossible'' for the Falcons to lose.

The Falcons came into the game determined to prove they were better than Carolina. They felt a lack of respect after some Panthers claimed Atlanta was inferior despite the Falcons' 19-14 opening-day win in Charlotte.

Think the Falcons made a point Sunday? Actually, they made an exclamation point. Their win raised their record to 3-1 this season and 9-3 since the middle of last season.

The Panthers are headed in the opposite direction, dropping to 0-4 for the first time since their inaugural 1995 season and 0-3 in the NFC West for the first time ever.

The trouble started with the opening kickoff, which Atlanta's Tim Dwight returned 93 yards for a touchdown.

The Falcons built a 17-3 halftime lead and buried the Panthers with one of the most incredible scoring surges in league history.

Atlanta used three Carolina turnovers to score 21 points in 48 seconds in the third quarter to take a 38-3 lead. It was the shortest span in which any team had scored three touchdowns since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.

And it showed just how far the Panthers have fallen since their dream season of 1996. On their way to the NFC Championship Game that year, they held three consecutive opponents (St. Louis, Houston and Tampa Bay) to a combined 16 points -- five fewer than Atlanta ripped off in less than a minute.

``They handed us our butt today,'' Greene said. ``The floodgates opened and it didn't stop.''

The record-setting flurry began just as Carolina appeared to be getting back into the game.

Trailing 17-3, the Panthers got the ball first in the second half and drove from their 34 to the Falcons' 35. From there, quarterback Collins whipped a quick pass over the middle to tight end Luther Broughton.

Broughton was running for extra yardage when Atlanta safety William White jarred the ball loose. Ronnie Bradford recovered the ball for the Falcons at the 22, setting an avalanche in motion.

After the fumble, Atlanta drove 78 yards in 11 plays for a touchdown, which came on a 1-yard run by former Panthers fullback Bob Christian. That made it 24-3.

Twenty seconds later, Carolina halfback Fred Lane fumbled and the Falcons recovered again.

Six seconds after that, the Falcons were up 31-3 thanks to a 26-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Chris Chandler to tight end O.J. Santiago.

It took only 22 seconds more for wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad to come up with the most bizarre blunder of all.

Muhammad caught a short pass from Collins, tripped, fell and fumbled without getting hit. White picked up the ball and ran 18 yards for yet another touchdown and a 38-3 lead.

``I'm very embarrassed about doing something like that,'' Muhammad said. ``My foot got caught in the turf and I had an awkward fall. When my arm hit the ground, the ball popped out. It was just a freak thing.''

``It was just one of many plays that we screwed up,'' Collins said.

No collection of Carolina blunders from this day would be complete without the touchdown the defense almost scored, but didn't.

With Atlanta leading 14-3 early in the second quarter, Greene sacked Chandler and forced a fumble.

For what seemed like a few seconds, the ball sat on the ground -- available at the Falcons' 12. Two Panthers, defensive end Sean Gilbert and linebacker Mike Barrow, had a chance to recover it. Gilbert tried to scoop it up and run. Barrow attempted to grab it on the ground.

Both failed.

Atlanta guard Calvin Collins wound up with the ball -- a worst-case scenario for the Panthers. Instead of getting a touchdown from Gilbert or at least a recovery at the 12, the Panthers got no more than an Atlanta punt.

Making matters worse, the Panthers turned the ball back over to the Falcons three plays later when an ill-advised pass from Collins toward tight end Wesley Walls was intercepted just in front of the end zone by Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan.

Collins appeared overanxious to get the ball to the well-covered Walls, the Pro Bowler who entered the game with five catches.

``Instead of throwing it out of bounds like I probably should have, I tried to get it to Wesley and maybe forced it a little bit,'' Collins said.

So it went for the Panthers on a day when three other previously winless teams (Buffalo, Chicago and Indianapolis) got their first first victories.

That left Carolina stuck at the bottom of the league with Philadelphia (0-5) and Washington (0-5) -- a reality Greene could hardly fathom.

``It's overwhelming,'' Greene said. ``We've got to fix something and I don't know what's broken.''

Asked if the performance against the Falcons was an indication the injuries that have wrecked the Panthers roster had taken a mighty toll, Greene said, ``Maybe so. I'd hate to point my finger at injuries, but it's definitely something we have to consider. If you lose one or two starters, that makes a difference in your team. But we've lost a lot of starters.''

The schedule gets no easier, as the Panthers face consecutive road games against Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Still, Collins took comfort in at least one thing.

``I don't believe it can get any worse than this,'' he said.