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More rookie magic in Atlanta

ATLANTA - When Harry Douglas returned to the sideline after his 61-yard punt return for a touchdown, Falcons owner Arthur Blank was one of those there to greet him. A happy embrace followed.

Atlanta is still in the NFC South race and the Falcons have more than one rookie hero.

Douglas, a third-round draft pick out of Louisville, certainly isn't close to quarterback Matt Ryan in first-year status. But the former football and basketball standout at Jonesboro High School certainly had a memorable breakout game Sunday.

Douglas scored his first two NFL touchdowns, had a 69-yard reception that proved to be the turning-point play and ended up with 188 all-purpose yards as the Falcons beat Carolina 45-28 at the Georgia Dome.

"I'm a little exhausted right now, but I'm feeling really good," Douglas said afterwards in the jubilant Falcons locker room.

Douglas' role has been expanding week by week and he had a headline performance just when Atlanta needed it most.

The victory moved the surprising Falcons to within a game of first place in the NFC South with five games to go in the regular season. Carolina and Tampa Bay are tied at 8-3, with Atlanta right behind at 7-4.

Douglas scored on a 7-yard end around as part of the Falcons' 17-0 start against the Panthers, but he saved his best moments for the fourth quarter after Carolina closed to within 24-21.

Carolina had Atlanta with a third-and-11 at the 25-yard line and seemed to have all the momentum. But Ryan, the third overall pick in the draft out of Boston College, connected with Douglas and the receiver turned it into a 69-yard gain down to the Carolina 6.

Veteran Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas insisted afterwards that he had Douglas covered.

"The ball was under-thrown and the wide receiver made a great play," he said. "I had the coverage on him."

The Falcons went for it on fourth down from the 1 and Michael Turner, who would tie a team record with four touchdowns, banged into the end zone with 7:13 to play.

If the game wasn't over then, it was shortly afterwards. Douglas gathered in a Carolina punt at the Falcons' 39 and took it all the way for a touchdown.

"When I caught it, I was going half speed to the left, but I knew what I was doing," Douglas said. "The guys up front did a great job of giving me a block to follow. So I made a quick cutback and the middle was wide open."

Douglas broke to the right sideline and sailed into the end zone. He drew a taunting penalty for his finger pointing the final 10 yards, but by then it didn't matter where the Falcons kicked off from.

Douglas, who had a couple of dropped passes when the Falcons lost 24-9 at Carolina in September, was sure handed and ultra productive this time. He had four catches for 92 yards in addition to his TD run and return yardage.

"He had a very nice game," Falcons coach Mike Smith said of Douglas. "He had a big pass reception to get us down there on the goal line. He had a beautiful punt return.

"He's doing a heck of a job for us. He's maturing, like a lot of our guys, beyond his years."

Ryan and the passing game had struggled during the loss at Carolina, but not this time. Ryan was 7-for-8 in the first quarter and finished 17 of 27 for 259 yards. With Turner rushing for 117 yards, the Falcons' offense was in perfect balance.

Ryan, a starter since the opening game, is a rookie in name only.

"That guy plays like a veteran," Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble said. "He hits his keys and he looks off on plays real well. He's not a rookie as far as I'm concerned. I can't believe that he's a rookie."

Douglas also has reached a different level and is one of the young Falcons who have helped propel Atlanta to within reach of first place in the NFC South. Who would have thought it?

"It felt really good, especially in a game of this magnitude," Douglas said of his performance against the Panthers. "Carolina was 8-2 and it was a home game against a division rival. It doesn't get much bigger than that. It felt really good to get my first two touchdowns in this game."