ATLANTA, Dec. 18 -- The Atlanta Falcons moved a step closer to securing a first-round bye in the playoffs while also dealing a crushing blow to the postseason hopes of the defending NFC champion Carolina Panthers Saturday night with a wildly entertaining 34-31 overtime victory at the Georgia Dome.
Jay Feely's 38-yard field goal, three plays after Falcons cornerback Aaron Beasley intercepted a slightly overthrown Jake Delhomme pass at midfield and returned it 30 yards to the Carolina 23, provided the winning points on a night when quarterback Michael Vick's heroics in the final minutes of regulation set the stage for the dramatic finish.
Atlanta kicker Jay Feely (4) celebrates with his teammates after booting the game-winning field goal.
(John Amis -- AP)
Vick's improvised 12-yard touchdown run up the middle on fourth and goal with 1 minute 37 seconds left in the fourth quarter and Feely's extra point allowed the Falcons to tie the game at 31-all, and the Atlanta defense didn't allow Carolina past the 27 to force the extra session. Vick leads the Falcons in rushing this season, and his 68 yards on eight carries pushed him to 889 yards for the season, 79 from tying the all-time record of 968 by Bobby Douglass of the Chicago Bears in 1972.
"Everybody had cleared out of there and I was able to break containment," Vick said of his touchdown run. "It looked like everybody had their back to me, so I was able to get in."
"No other quarterback makes that play," Carolina linebacker Mark Fields said.
The Falcons (11-3) had already clinched the NFC South Division title going into the nationally televised game. They will earn a bye in the first round of the playoffs if the Green Bay Packers (8-5) lose Sunday at home against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Falcons continued their mastery over a gritty Carolina team that arrived here with a five-game winning streak after starting 1-7.
Each of those Panthers victories came against a team with a losing record, but the Falcons proved to be far more formidable foe in beating Carolina for the 12th time in their last 14 meetings, twice this season. Carolina (6-8) is still alive for a playoff spot, but likely will need help to get into the postseason.
Atlanta, as usual, was particularly effective with its running game. Already ranked No. 1 in the league in rushing, averaging 167 yards on the ground per game, the Falcons continued that success with 204 yards, including 134 yards in 28 carries from running back Warrick Dunn, who also had a touchdown.
This was a game of constantly shifting swings in momentum. The Falcons opened an early 10-0 lead, only to have the plucky Panthers come back and tie at 10 at intermission. The Falcons scored two unanswered third-quarter touchdowns to open a 14-point lead going into the final period, only to have Carolina rally right back and tie again at 24 when defensive end Julius Peppers ran 60 yards for a touchdown with a fumble caused when Vick was hit from behind.
The Falcons were threatening to go back in the lead midway through the final period when tight end Alge Crumpler fumbled at the Panthers 23-yard line.
Now it was Carolina's turn to take the lead for the first time when Nick Goings scored on a quick five-yard draw for a 31-24 advantage with 3:37 remaining.
Vick got his hands on the ball a few second later, and that ultimately proved fatal to the Panthers.
On fourth and goal at the 12, with the game on the line, Vick took matters into his own hands, with something of an assist from referee Larry Nemmers. Seeing the middle open up, Vick dashed straight up the middle, somehow avoiding a diving tackle attempt by Morgan. Vick also dove toward the end zone and when he came down, the ball was over the goal line.
Carolina Coach John Fox challenged the touchdown, claiming that Vick's knee had touched down before the ball had crossed the goal line. But Nemmers came back after looking at several replays and proclaimed the touchdown would stand as originally called.
"Nah," Vick said, "I wasn't worried about. I knew I was in."
Said Morgan, "It was such an unbelievable game, and you hate to lose it."
And Vick? "Hey, he just makes plays. Everybody knows about him."