ATLANTA — In a game in which it was hard to identify the expansion team, it was fitting that Atlanta's pass rush came up with the play that made the difference.
Lester Archambeau stripped Carolina quarterback Frank Reich of the ball and recovered on the Panthers' 31 on the first series of overtime Sunday, setting up Morten Andersen's 35-yard game-winning field goal 6:17 into the extra period, giving the Falcons a 23-20 victory.
"They left me unblocked," Archambeau said. "Once I was there and had my hands around him, I saw that the ball was just out there. I swatted it and it fell out, and luckily I was able to fall on the ball."
He also was credited with a sack, Atlanta's ninth of the game, tying a club record. Chris Doleman had three.
In their NFL debut, the Panthers tied it with only 26 seconds remaining in regulation when Willie Green caught a 44-yard scoring pass from Reich as defender Terry Taylor fell trying to break it up.
Carolina lined up for a two-point conversion, but ditched that idea when a false-start penalty on Derrick Graham pushed them back five yards. The Panthers settled for John Kasay's tying extra point.
Coach Dom Capers didn't hesitate lining up for a two-point conversion.
"We were on the road just coming off of our biggest play of the game," he said. "We had a lot of momentum. I felt going for two was the only choice before the penalty."
Reich started the five-play drive with a 23-yard pass to Bob Christian at the Carolina 43 and later passed to Green for 13 yards, one play before the touchdown.
Atlanta got close enough for Andersen to attempt a 58-yard field goal on the final play of regulation, but it was short and wide left.
"I felt rushed," Andersen said of the miss. "It was not as smooth of a swing as I want to have. I pushed too hard and missed badly."
Andersen said his teammates did an excellent job giving him a chance to win the game.
"I don't care how you win," he said. "We got in position, I felt it was our ballgame."
The Falcons said they expected a tough game from the Panthers.
"People looked at this Carolina team like it was a pushover," Craig Heyward said. "If you looked at their preseason, they played extremely well."
The Panthers were trying to become only the second expansion team to open with a victory, the first coming in 1961, when the Minnesota Vikings upset the Chicago Bears, 37-13.
The Panthers held Atlanta to nine yards on its first possession and then drove 65 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead. Reich, a backup with Buffalo for the last 10 years, completed an eight-yard scoring pass to Pete Metzelaars less than six minutes into the game, giving the Panthers their first regular-season touchdown.