CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One team is cruising with a balanced offense, opportunistic defense and the best record in the NFC. The other is in disarray, strapped of talent and experience, and now lashing out at each other on the way to securing the No. 1 pick in the draft.
The stark differences among these once-similar franchises were on full display Sunday. It was just that few chose to watch as the Atlanta Falcons ended the suspense early in sending the woeful Carolina Panthers to another loss, 31-10.
In front of a half-full stadium on a cold, damp day, the Falcons (11-2) avoided a road letdown by forcing fumble by Jonathan Stewart on the first play from scrimmage. They scored three plays later, added another TD on the next possession and were never threatened.
"We came out and jumped on them pretty quick and got up 14-0 really fast," said Michael Turner, who rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns despite taking a shot to the eye early in the game. "It's hard for teams to come back on us when we got out front like that."
For the Panthers (1-12), it's nearly impossible. After rookie Jimmy Clausen slogged through another disappointing day that included no touchdowns, an interception and five sacks, he apologized to the defense and linebacker Jon Beason.
Not a good idea, according to receiver Steve Smith.
"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."
That came after coach John Fox said, "I can hardly blame our fans," for not showing up to watch a team that managed 33 yards and two first downs in the first half.
One fan wore a bag over his head and raised a sign reading, "We want Mr. Luck," in reference to Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, the possible No. 1 pick if he leaves school early.
"Everybody should be apologizing about something," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "This is a mess as far as our production on the field."
Stewart rushed for a season-best 133 yards and Mike Goodson added a second-half TD run, but the Panthers turned in another dud. They've been outscored 102-26 in the past three home games as they kept a one-game lead over Cincinnati in the race to the bottom of the league and ensuing top draft pick.
"This whole season, every game, is just so, so frustrating," Gross said. "I mean, a million sacks in the first half and just an ugly passing game."
The Falcons, meanwhile, remained tied with New England for the best record in the NFL and still have a one-game edge over New Orleans in the NFC South.
"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, while Mike Peterson was credited with stripping Stewart and later picked off Clausen to set up Turner's final touchdown.
Matt Ryan threw for 227 yards and a touchdown to Tony Gonzalez, overcoming his third interception in two games with a nearly 9-minute scoring drive to win in Carolina for the first time in his three-year career.
"Matt has done a very good job in getting the ball to the right guy," coach Mike Smith said. "I think that's why we're one of the top teams in the NFL on third down efficiency."
The banged-up Panthers, who started fifth-stringer Jordan Senn at weakside linebacker, were no match in their seventh straight loss in a lost season that keeps reaching new lows.
Clausen, now 0-7 as a starter, completed 14 of 24 passes. 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."