CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was cold and damp, more than half the seats were empty and an infighting, one-win team playing out the string was on the other side of the field.
Cause for the NFC's top team to come out flat? Not for these Atlanta Falcons, thanks to a big play on the first snap from scrimmage.
Mike Peterson and a couple teammates ripped the ball away from Jonathan Stewart to set up a quick touchdown three plays later. Michael Turner then reached the end zone three more times on the way to a 112-yard rushing day as the Falcons cruised to a 31-10 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
"It was huge for us," coach Mike Smith said. "We said we wanted to start fast and finish fast. I thought we got the first part of it right."
Matt Ryan's 4-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez after the fumble helped Atlanta (11-2) jump to a 17-0 halftime lead. The Falcons then survived a brief hiccup to start the third quarter and cruised to their seventh straight win to keep hold of the conference's top spot.
"With three NFC games left, it's important. All the games are big now," defensive end John Abraham said. "All the games can put us in a good situation. We've got Seattle, then New Orleans and Carolina again. We want to have that home field advantage and for us we have to keep winning."
Abraham and Kroy Biermann each had two sacks, Peterson later picked off Jimmy Clausen and the Falcons became the latest team to shut down the league's worst offense -- a team that's now begun to point fingers, too.
Clausen, the rookie whose introduction to the NFL has been rough, threw for only 107 yards and extended his streak of passes without a TD to 193. He apologized to linebacker Jon Beason for his play after the game, drawing the wrath of receiver Steve Smith, who had another quiet day.
"If you're going to apologize, you know, you should apologize to the people in the huddle with you," Smith said. "He has a lot to learn. He ain't at Notre Dame anymore that's for sure."
Stewart rushed for a season-best 133 yards, but his fumble set the tone for another miserable afternoon as the Panthers (1-12) dropped their seventh straight to stay on track to get the top pick in the draft.
"Everybody should be apologizing about something," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "This is a mess as far as our production on the field."
Atlanta inched closer to a playoff berth with the victory. With Green Bay losing to Detroit, Atlanta would get in with a loss by the Eagles on Sunday night or the Giants on Monday thanks to Turner's continued resurgence.
Turner, who sprained his ankle here last year to derail his season as Atlanta missed the playoffs, had TD runs of 1, 3 and 4 yards in his fifth straight 100-yard game against Carolina. He carried 28 times, getting increased work despite a shot to the eye early on as backup Jason Snelling (hamstring) remained sidelined.
"It was great football weather out there," Turner said. "It was a muddy, sloppy field out there. Just went out there and had some fun."
Ryan wasn't particularly sharp, but completed 20 of 34 passes for 227 yards and an interception. Roddy White caught eight passes for 79 yards and Atlanta overcame an odd atmosphere amid Carolina's horrible season.
With bundled-up owner Jerry Richardson watching stone-faced from his open-air box in the end zone, he saw thousands of empty blue seats and a team in disarray after his offseason cost-cutting.
The few fans that were on hand -- the stadium was somewhere between a third and half full at the start -- at least were making light of the situation. The loudest cheer early was when referee Clete Blakeman announced, "That is the end of the first quarter."
At that point, the Panthers were being outgained 133-6. They didn't get a first down -- which also produced jeers -- until early in the second quarter.
Clausen, now 0-7 as a starter, completed 14 of 24 passes and was sacked five times. He has one TD and seven picks on the season.
"I don't feel like I'm playing to my level of capability that I expect of myself," Clausen said, explaining his apology to the defense. "I thought that was the right thing to do."
After gaining 33 yards in the first half, the Panthers got a 48-yard burst by Stewart and Mike Goodson's 13-yard TD run on an 81-yard drive to start the third quarter to get within 17-7.
Stewart rumbled for 42 yards for the next possession, but a frazzled Clausen was sacked by Chauncey Davis on fourth down near midfield to end the drive.
The Falcons quickly pounced, with Ryan completing three passes to White before Turner's twisting 3-yard TD run made it 24-7.
"We feel like we're a good football team, that's for sure," Ryan said, deflecting a question on where he ranks the Falcons. "We are a confident team, but at this point of the year it doesn't really matter."
Gonzalez's TD catch was the 87th of his career, tying him with Andre Reed for 11th in league history. ... Abraham has nine sacks in the past eight games. ... Panthers DE Everette Brown (wrist) left early in the fourth quarter. ... Panthers WR Armanti Edwards threw one pass for no gain out of the wildcat formation.
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