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Falcons win division opener
Atlanta goes to 2-0 on season
Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams (34) breaks away from Atlanta Falcons' Chris Houston, left, to score a touchdown in the second quarter on Sunday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. - photo by By John Amis

Zopf: Falcons on way to winning season

Falcons at Patriots

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Foxborough, Mass.


ATLANTA — Matt Ryan has a new favorite receiver. No surprise who it is.

Ryan threw three touchdown passes, hooking up with Tony Gonzalez for the second week in a row, and the Atlanta Falcons held off the Carolina Panthers 28-20 on Sunday.

Through his first two games with the Falcons, Gonzalez has 12 catches for 144 yards and two touchdowns. Just what Atlanta had in mind when it dealt for a tight end who figures to end up in Canton — and starting 2-0 is just what Gonzalez had in mind when he asked to be traded by lowly Kansas City.

The Falcons already have matched the Chiefs’ win total for all of last season.

“Not a bad start at all,” Gonzalez said. “It’s just great to be part of a team like this.”

Ryan had a big first half, which included a brilliant fingertip grab by Gonzalez on a 24-yard score. Jason Snelling and Roddy White also hauled in TD passes, giving Atlanta a 21-13 lead at the break.

Ryan completed 13 straight passes at one point and finished 21 of 27 for 220 yards, though he did have his first interception of the season. Gonzalez led the Falcons again with seven receptions for 71 yards.

“He’s one of the greatest tight ends of all time,” Ryan said. “That was a huge pickup for us. He makes big plays for us in different situations when we need him. I’ve enjoyed playing with him thus far.”

Jake Delhomme played much better for the Panthers, looking nothing like the quarterback who had 11 turnovers in his last two games.

But his 25-of-41, 308-yard passing performance was marred by that familiar problem — an interception with 21/2 minutes remaining near the Atlanta end zone — and the defending NFC South champions are off to an 0-2 start.

“It couldn’t be any worse than last week,” said Delhomme, referring to his four-interception, one-fumble fiasco in a 38-10 loss to Philadelphia. “I felt good out there today. Last week, I put too much pressure on myself. This week, I got back to being just plain Jake.”

The Falcons looked to be in good shape after Michael Turner powered over from the 1 with 12:27 remaining, stretching the lead to 28-13 lead.

Back came Delhomme and the Panthers. A 10-play, 80-yard drive made it 28-20, and Carolina was in position to force overtime with a touchdown and a two-point conversion after driving to a first down at the Falcons 17.

But three straight incompletions left the Panthers in desperation mode.

On fourth-and-10, Delhomme tried to force in a pass to Steve Smith near the end zone.

Chris Houston stepped in front to pick it off at the 4 before being slammed out bounds by Smith, who had a huge game with eight catches for 131 yards despite being hurt on the final play of the first half.

The Panthers had one last chance after forcing an Atlanta punt. Delhomme completed four straight passes to get the ball to the Atlanta 43 with eight seconds left.

For the final pass, the Falcons stationed 6-foot-5 receiver Brian Finneran as an extra defensive back. Finneran and Brent Grimes went up together to bat the ball down, and Grimes got a hand on it — but nearly knocked it to a Carolina receiver.

Dwayne Garrett dove for the ball and rolled over cradling it, but it clearly hit the turf before he got his hands extended.

The replay officials upstairs ordered a review, just to make sure the clock had run out. The head coaches and a couple of players from each team were the only ones left on the field when the game officially ended.

“I guess we would’ve had to go get some guys out of the showers,” Falcons coach Mike Smith joked.

DeAngelo Williams scored on a 3-yard run to give Carolina a short-lived 10-7 lead early in the second quarter. John Kasay kicked a couple of field goals, including a 50-yarder.

Gonzalez isn’t the only newcomer off to a great start with the Falcons. Linebacker Mike Peterson had a big game for the second week in a row, leading the team with nine tackles, forcing a fumble, breaking up a pass and catching a punt that was blocked by Brian Williams.

NOTES: The Falcons are 2-0 for only the second time in the last 11 years. ... Richard Marshall picked off Ryan in the first quarter but was called for a crucial pass interference penalty that set up Turner’s TD. ... Atlanta sustained a potentially damaging loss when its first-round pick, DT Peria Jerry, was carted to the training room in the fourth quarter, appearing to have injured his left knee. The Falcons did not reveal the seriousness of his condition. ... RB Jerious Norwood took a blow to the head on his only carry and didn’t return. Snelling filled in well, hauling in the first TD catch of his career. ... The Falcons wore throwback uniforms from their debut season in 1966.

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