CHARLOTTE, Oct. 3 -- Playing without Michael Vick last season, the Atlanta Falcons finished 5-11 and coach Dan Reeves was fired. This season, without the Pro Bowl quarterback playing at his best and with a rookie coach in Jim Mora Jr., the Falcons have used defense to remain undefeated after Sunday's 27-10 drubbing of the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
The NFC champion Panthers largely held Vick in check, limiting the former Virginia Tech star to 148 yards on 10-for-18 passing and 35 rushing yards on seven attempts. But the resurgent Falcons defense held the Panthers to 67 rushing yards and forced three critical turnovers, including cornerback Kevin Mathis's 35-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave Atlanta (4-0) a 20-10 lead with 12 minutes remaining.
Falcons' Warrick Dunn breaks the tackle of Panthers' Mark Fields as he runs for a 38-yard touchdown in the first quarter as Atlanta improved to 4-0 for the first time since 1986.
(Chuck Burton -- AP)
The Falcons, who made the playoffs in Vick's second season in 2002 but then fizzled last year after he broke his right leg during the preseason, took a two-game lead over the New Orleans Saints (2-2) in the NFC South. The Panthers (1-2), who finished 11-5 last season and lost to the New England Patriots, 32-29, on a last-second field goal in Super XXXVIII, trail the Falcons by 2½ games. Atlanta, which is 4-0 for the first time since 1986 and one of five unbeaten teams, beat the Panthers for the 11th time in 13 meetings.
"It's just 4-0, and it's only a small piece of the puzzle," Falcons defensive end Patrick Kerney said. "We're still not where we want to be yet. It's only the first game of October, and we've only played a quarter of the season. We've still got a long way to go, but we're off to a good start."
Kerney, a former University of Virginia standout, has helped turn around Atlanta's defense, which ranked last in the NFL and allowed 30 points or more seven times last season. After switching from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3, the Falcons went into Sunday's game ranked 11th in total defense and second against the run.
"Our defense has done a complete 360-degree turnaround from last year," Vick said. "That's not the same Atlanta Falcons defense, and they're only going to get better."
Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking said he can't wait until Vick and the offense catch up.
"Our offense has so many weapons, and we know eventually they're going to put it all together," Brooking said. "We've just got to keep believing. You're not going to have all three phases executing every week. You're going to have games where one phase is sputtering, so you've got to win the game with defense and special teams."
That's what the Falcons have done so far this season, as Vick clearly hasn't hit his stride in Mora's West Coast offense. Going into Sunday's game, he had completed 14 passes to wide receivers -- who haven't scored a touchdown this season -- and Peerless Price and Dez White combined to catch only four passes against the Panthers.
For the second time this season, Vick got off to a hot start and then fizzled late. He completed his first seven passes, four of them to tight end Alge Crumpler, but then completed only 3 of 11 passes for 30 yards in all but 2½ minutes of the final three quarters.
Vick is averaging 6.5 yards when he runs but says he's trying to do that even less. In last week's 6-3 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, Vick seemed unsure of himself in the pocket, and his first instinct was to run. Against the Panthers, he didn't run until his nine-yard gain with 11 minutes 15 seconds left in the second quarter. In fact, the Falcons didn't call a designed run for Vick until his 17-yard gain around left end with about 11 minutes remaining in the game.
"They came after me, and they were an aggressive defense," Vick said of the Panthers, who were penalized three times for late hits on the quarterback. "They did a great job of containing me and keeping me in the pocket. I had to make sure I got the ball out of my hands quickly and got it to the receivers and backs. We got some big plays downfield, and our execution was good. If we can run our offense like we did in this game every week, I'll take it."
Mora would gladly have his defense keep performing the same. The Panthers drove deep on their first possession, but on second down and 10 at the Falcons 11-yard line, wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad was stripped by safety Bryan Scott, and Brooking recovered the fumble at Atlanta's 22. Five plays later, tailback Warrick Dunn broke loose for a 38-yard touchdown run and a 7-0 lead.
The Falcons went ahead, 13-7, after Jay Feely's two field goals before halftime, and their defense twice bailed them out in the second half. Carolina drove to the Atlanta 23 with about seven minutes left in the third quarter, and Jake Delhomme threw near the goal line for tight end Michael Gaines. But linebacker Matt Stewart tipped the ball, which Gaines then deflected and Scott intercepted.
Later, with 12 minutes remaining, Delhomme tried to throw a slant pattern to wide receiver Keary Colbert, but the quarterback never saw Mathis, who disguised his coverage with a zone blitz. Mathis intercepted the ball and returned it 35 yards down the right sideline for a touchdown. Falcons tailback T.J. Duckett added a four-yard touchdown run with 4:13 left.
"Last season really left a bad taste in our mouths," Scott said. "We worked really hard in the offseason and just really gelled as a team. Things are just going our way right now."