ATLANTA — Michael Turner handled the power game, lowering his head and ramming into would-be tacklers time after time. Harry Douglas turned up the speed, finishing off Carolina with an electrifying dash to the end zone.
Thunder and Lightning carried the Atlanta Falcons to an impressive win Sunday in a game they couldn’t afford to lose in the NFC South.
Turner tied a team record with four rushing touchdowns, Douglas scored the first two TDs of his career — the second on a 61-yard punt return — and the Falcons romped to a 45-28 win over the Panthers to move within a game of the division lead.
Turner went over 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career and scored his first three TDs on bruising runs of 1, 4 and 1 yards — the last of those on fourth down when the Falcons decided to go for it instead of settle for a field goal that would have given them just a six-point lead with about 7 minutes to go.
"I think it makes the decision a little easier when you’ve got a physical running back like Michael," said rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, who had another solid day. "His effort is the biggest thing. He continues to run hard from the first quarter through the fourth quarter. He’s tough to bring down."
So was Douglas, but for a very different reason. Showing off his blazing speed, the rookie receiver scored his first TD on a 7-yard end around and took off with a 69-yard pass that set up another score. But it was his final play everyone will remember.
Carolina’s Jason Barker got off a booming punt from the back of his end zone, but that merely gave Douglas some time to decide what he wanted to do. He surveyed the field for a split-second, took off suddenly to his left, then cut back right through a huge hole.
Barker was the last man with a chance, but Douglas merely pointed at him the final 10 yards before leaping into the Georgia Dome stands to celebrate a 38-21 lead with less than 5 minutes to go.
"Once I made my cut, I saw the opening and I saw I had two guys to beat," Douglas said. "One guy was covered by our guy. Just the punter was left."
No contest there. Carolina was done.
Coming off its first home loss, Atlanta (7-4) raced to a 17-0 lead, endured a Carolina comeback and blew it open in the final minutes.
While Turner and Douglas were huge, also give a nod to first-year coach Mike Smith. He’s been making all the right calls and came up with another winner when Atlanta, leading 24-21, faced fourth-and-goal from just outside the 1.
Kicker Jason Elam started to run on the field, but Smith sent him back. The Falcons lined up with Turner in the backfield, Ryan to hand him the ball and everyone else ready to block. Julius Peppers got a shot at Turner, but the running back blew through the star defensive end and went in standing for a 31-21 lead.
"That was a real easy decision," Smith said. "We felt like we’d be able to punch it in. I really felt we had no other choice but to do it. Three points for a field goal gives us a six-point lead. I felt like we needed to score a touchdown."
Turner took care of the rest. It didn’t matter that a player of Peppers’ caliber was in the way.
"I don’t know numbers," he said. "I just know colors."
Turner rambled for a 16-yard touchdown in the final minute, his fourth rushing score of the game tying T.J. Duckett’s team record and 13th score this season leaving him one shy of Jamal Anderson’s franchise mark. Turner finished with 117 yards on 24 carries, his fifth 100-yard game of the year.
Douglas had the best game of his career by far, and he did it after two crucial drops in a September loss at Carolina. He caught four balls this time for 92 yards, had three punt returns for 93 yards and scored the Falcons’ first touchdown after taking a pitch from Ryan and outrunning everyone to the corner.
"Whatever they need me to do, wherever they need me to play, that’s why I’m here," Douglas said.
Carolina put up some huge numbers, but couldn’t overcome a terrible start. Atlanta had a 17-0 lead before the Panthers had a first down.
"They had a lot of personnel groupings and did a good job hiding their substitutions," Panthers coach John Fox said. "It caused us to be a little bit behind on defense."
Jake Delhomme was 21-of-35 for 295 yards, hooking up with Steve Smith on eight passes for 168 yards. DeAngelo Williams rushed for 101 yards on 19 carries, including a 5-yard touchdown early in the third that cut Atlanta’s lead to 17-10.
"We dug ourselves such a hole," said Delhomme, who scored on a 12-yard scramble and threw a late TD pass to Muhsin Muhammad. "They started fast and we tried to make a game of it. It’s frustrating. We should start better."Notes: The Falcons had a season high for points, surpassing a 38-14 win over Kansas City. ... Carolina surrendered its most points of the season, nearly three times its season average of 15.5. ... Douglas set up Atlanta’s second touchdown with a 27-yard punt return.