CHARLOTTE, N.C.- The Carolina Panthers didn’t have to find a way to stop Michael Vick.

He did it all by himself.

Determined to make Vick a pocket passer, Atlanta kept the crafty quarterback bottled up despite his long history of running wild against the Panthers. It resulted in a punchless offense for the Falcons, who could only manage a pair of field goals in their 23-6 loss to Carolina on Sunday.

DeShaun Foster scored two touchdowns and became the first Carolina back to go over 100 yards this season while helping the Panthers (9-3) snap a three-game losing streak against Atlanta (7-5).

It also gave Carolina a two-game NFC South lead over the Falcons, and a one-game advantage over Tampa Bay – setting up another huge division showdown next week against the Bucs.

The Falcons will certainly be questioning their strategy in this one, just their third loss to Carolina in 15 meetings.

The Panthers have always struggled to contain Vick, who had a knack for embarrassing the Panthers on the ground. In five previous starts, Vick ran 40 times for 356 yards, a whopping 8.9 yards per carry. His success had the Panthers on edge all week, forced to issue repeated denials that Vick wasn’t in their heads and could be beaten.

But Atlanta coach Jim Mora wants Vick to improve his passing so the Falcons aren’t forced to rely on his legs so much. Mora stubbornly stuck with that game plan, holding Vick to a baffling three carries for 36 yards.

Vick finished 17-of-35 for 171 yards in the air. He was sacked five times, and intercepted twice, including Ricky Manning Jr.’s pick with 3:57 to play, which ended any hopes of an Atlanta rally. It set up Foster’s second score of the game, a 6-yard run.

The Panthers weren’t overly efficient in this one, doing just enough to finally pull one out against their nemesis. Tensions were high between the rivals, with several on-field scuffles breaking out at the end of plays.

After Carolina fullback Brad Hoover and DeAngelo Hall took turns throwing the ball at each other – Hoover was called for a personal foul – the teams had to be separated after several seconds of shoving that drew Mora to midfield to pull away his players.

Jake Delhomme threw a pair of 18-yard touchdowns, one to Foster, who rambled 18 yards for the score, and the second to Steve Smith, who stiff-armed his way past two defenders to dive into the end zone. He celebrated by pretending the football was a baby that needed its diaper changed.

Smith finished with seven catches for 65 yards.

Foster, meanwhile, continued his move toward Carolina’s featured back. Although Stephen Davis got the start, he had just five carries for 8 yards and gave way to Foster midway through the first quarter.

Foster finished with 131 yards on 24 carries, and another 49 yards on three catches. Davis proved there’s no animosity between the two by sprinting from the sideline to the far corner of the field to celebrate Foster’s first score with him.

AP-ES-12-04-05 1619EST

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