Aside from a play early in the game when quarterback Jake Delhomme's pants ripped, the Carolina Panthers held together nicely on Sunday, routing the Atlanta Falcons to clinch a berth in the playoffs.
After the game, Delhomme laughed about the incident, and the Panthers (11-5) exhaled. They were in control of the National Football Conference South on Dec. 4 with a 9-3 record, but then lost two of their next three games and needed a victory at Atlanta to assure a place in the playoffs. Carolina claimed one of the NFC's two wild-card spots with a 44-11 victory and will play the Giants next Sunday at Giants Stadium.
"We've had a few opportunities here in the last month, and it basically got down to one left," Fox said. "Fortunately, we were able to get over the hump."
Delhomme completed 14 of 20 passes for 163 yards and two touchdowns, and DeShaun Foster rushed for 165 yards against the Falcons, who were eliminated from playoff contention last week.
Delhomme threw a 12-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Ricky Proehl on Carolina's first series to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead. On the Panthers' second possession, Foster ran 70 yards for a touchdown, the longest scoring run in team history.
Carolina was so efficient on offense that it scored on its first five possessions and led by 27-3 at halftime. The Panthers converted their first five third-down chances, averaging 30 yards on third-down plays in their first two series.
Wide receiver Steve Smith caught nine passes for 131 yards against an overmatched Atlanta secondary, which was playing without the All-Pro cornerback DeAngelo Hall, who has an injured shoulder.
"We had some good one-on-one opportunities and our receivers made the most of them," Delhomme said.
The Panthers entered the game 1-9 at the Georgia Dome, and they were averaging only 3.2 yards a carry, 31st in the NFL. Foster averaged 9.2 yards a carry Sunday.
A fourth-year running back from UCLA, Foster had only one other 100-yard rushing game this season -- against the Falcons on Dec. 4, when he ran for 131 yards.
The Falcons were in such disarray that when they forced the Panthers to punt for the first time -- with 3 minutes 10 seconds remaining in the third quarter -- punt returner Michael Jenkins fumbled.
The Falcons were booed by their fans, a stark contrast to the first game of the season here, when the Falcons beat the Philadelphia Eagles, the defending NFC champions, and were declared a leading Super Bowl contender.
But after winning six of their first eight games, the Falcons ended at 8-8. A victory Sunday would have given Atlanta its first back-to-back winning seasons.
For the second time this season, the Panthers bottled up Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. He was 15 of 24 passing for 115 yards. He was sacked three times and, for the first time this season, had no yards rushing. The last time Vick did not have any rushing yards was Nov. 3, 2002, against the Ravens.
Steelers 35, Lions 21
At Pittsburgh, Jerome Bettis, playing what is likely his final game in Pittsburgh, matched his career high with three touchdown runs, none longer than 5 yards, as the Steelers overcame some sloppy defensive play to secure their 10th playoff appearance in 14 seasons under coach Bill Cowher.
Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history, ran for just 41 yards as Willie Parker got most of the carries and gained 135. But Bettis scored on runs of 1, 5 and 4 yards to help the Steelers (11-5) overcome an early 14-7 deficit against the Lions (5-11), who finished another dismal season with six losses in their final seven games.