CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers matched last season's win total at Bank of America Stadium with their 24-9 win over Atlanta on Sunday, and the way they did it harkened back to the style that's worked so well for them before.
The gameplan was as subtle as a sledgehammer, and demanding of the group that's going to have to carry the team this year.
"We played good," defensive end Julius Peppers said of the smothering his side laid on. "It's not a surprise to me or really to anybody in here that we're playing good. We expected to play good.
"If we don't play good, that's unacceptable really, with the talent and the guys we've got in here."
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For the third week in four, the Panthers dropped the league's leading rusher cold, this time preventing Atlanta's Michael Turner from running over them.
Just as they did to defending rushing champ LaDainian Tomlinson in San Diego, and just as they did to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson last week, they took a guy who was at the top of the heap and put him somewhere else by the end of the day.
Turner was averaging 122 yards per game coming in, but left with just 56. Without the key to their offense, the Falcons sputtered around him, unable to take advantage of more special-teams errors. In fact, Atlanta got just three field goals on the day, one coming off a blocked punt and another after a Panthers penalty wiped out a Jason Elam miss.
Peppers said his side of the ball took last week's loss at Minnesota personally. Even though they kept Peterson from deciding the game, they did allow Gus Frerotte to burn them through the air, and they decided it wasn't happening again.
The message was simple, and was outlined by several.
"Last week, we got out-hit, we got out-physicaled, we got out-hustled on defense," Peppers said. "We told ourselves we're not going to let that happen this week. It's not going to happen again. So we got challenged by the coaches this week on that and we also challenged ourselves.
"Nobody's going to out-hustle us or out-hit us or out-physical us anymore."
The Falcons certainly didn't, though it wasn't for a lack of trying.
The young rebuilding effort there is well ahead of schedule, but they ran into the wall that divides them from more established teams. Without Turner to lean on, rookie quarterback Matt Ryan failed to impress, managing a few plays but not enough to get in the way of a determined Panthers team.
"The motto is to bend, don't break," linebacker Jon Beason said. "They're going to make plays; those guys over there get paid, too. But at the end of the day, you just want to stand up and keep them out of the end zone. We know our offense is going to score points, but a couple field goals here and there, our offense scores points, we're going to win a lot of games.
"We know we've been playing good as a team. We've had glimpses where we've had a little letdown. This week, we wanted to come out and try to be great. I think guys answered the bell."
They did it with just enough contributions from the offense, which was working out of its normal order.
"Today was one of those days," wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. "Maybe the passing game set up the running game."
The Panthers ran enough, 33 times for 107 yards, but neither DeAngelo Williams (57) nor Jonathan Stewart (52) was able to find consistent creases. So a sore-legged Jake Delhomme simply beat the Falcons through the air, throwing for 294 yards and two touchdowns, one each to Steve Smith and Muhammad.
Smith left without talking to reporters, but both Muhammad and Delhomme talked about the chemistry in the passing game that was so apparent throughout the day.
"I think it's trust -- I trust them, they trust me," Delhomme said. "It's body language and watching them run certain routes. We rep a lot of things together. We talk about a lot of things. I'm not saying there will never be miscommunication, it's going to happen. ...
"You just want to make sure everybody is on the same page. It's just nice having those two guys. You get comfortable with guys."
The day wasn't all silver lining, as Delhomme and two of his protectors were hobbled.
Left tackle Jordan Gross was knocked out in the first quarter with a potentially serious concussion and didn't return. Right tackle Jeff Otah left in the third with an ankle sprain. Delhomme was hobbling after taking a knee to the right leg early in the game, and will likely be limping much worse when the euphoria of this one wears off.
But it was the way the Panthers bounced back from several things that buoyed them afterward.
For the second time this year, the offensive line played well without two starters (as Otah and Travelle Wharton weren't able to finish the San Diego game), allowing Delhomme to get through without a sack.
They also continued to make silly mental mistakes, with false starts and illegal formation penalties, and coach John Fox reversing last week's blunder by failing to call a timeout with 12 men on the field for a field goal.
But now, at the quarter pole of the season, they're 3-1. Included are a pair of home wins, long a bugaboo for a team that's been better on the road under Fox.
"Hopefully, we can say this is a turning point, because we have won every way," Muhammad said.
Perhaps most importantly, they've created a feeling that they're on the way to something, something special.
"The guys we have here believe in the system, believe in the coaches and believe in what we do," linebacker Na'il Diggs said. "That's what it is, is guys believing and buying in that we can be good.
"As long as we don't make mistakes, as long as we play hard, don't take days off, we can go as far as we want to."