The Atlanta Falcons survived a strong challenge from the Carolina Panthers Sunday in the Georgia Dome, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to win, 30-28, in the final seconds in a heartbreaker for Panther fans.
The Panthers led 28-27 in the final two minutes but then passed up going for it on fourth-and-one from the Atlanta 45, instead taking a delay of game penalty and then downing Brad Nortman’s 49-yard punt at the Falcons’ 1. But Ron Rivera’s refusal to gamble there on offense and put the game in the hands of his defense ended up costing the Panther head coach dearly. (The Panthers had nearly had the first down already, but a Cam Newton fumble on third down cost them about a yard although it was recovered by Carolina).
From its own 1, Atlanta had only 59 seconds to get into field-goal range and no timeouts. But on the first play, Roddy White caught a deep ball right over safety Haruki Nakamura’s head for a 59-yard gain to the Carolina 40. (Nakamura would later blame himself for the loss in the locker room, saying he "cost us the game.) A couple of short passes later and the Falcons got a 40-yard field goal from Matt Bryant with five seconds remaining to win.
The Panthers played far better than they did 10 days ago, but it wasn’t enough as they lost once again in the Georgia Dome, which has long been a personal house of horrors for Carolina. Newton was sacked on the final play as he tried to pull off an 80-yard miracle.
After sustaining a 36-7 loss to the New York Giants on national TV on Sept.20, this time the Panthers played one of the NFC’s top contenders to a virtual standstill for most of the game and actually led 28-24 in the fourth quarter. But Atlanta ultimately made more big plays, with overmatched safety Nakamura figuring prominently in several Falcon scores.
The Falcons (4-0) started sluggishly but then ended up beating Carolina (1-3) for the seventh time in their last eight tries.
The Panthers stayed in the game throughout the first half and even held leads of 7-0 and 14-10 on touchdowns by Greg Olsen (a 17-yard pass from Newton) and DeAngelo Williams (a 13-yard run).
After giving up an 80-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession of each of its first three games, this time Carolina held Atlanta to a three-and-out on the Falcons’ first possession and then got an end-zone interception by Nakamura on the second.
But Nakamura, who was obviously being targeted by the Falcons, then gave up a 49-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Roddy White in which Nakamura completely misjudged the ball. And then came another Ryan-White TD late in the second quarter, when the Panthers couldn’t contain White in zone coverage. That gave Atlanta its 17-14 halftime lead.
Atlanta extended that lead to 24-14 on a dump pass to Michael Turner in the third quarter after some very poor tackling by Carolina (including a badly missed arm tackle by Nakamura). But Carolina sliced that margin to 24-21 on Newton’s four-yard touchdown run, which he followed with a Superman celebration that drew raucous boos.
Newton’s four-yard run in the third quarter sliced Atlanta’s margin to 24-21. Then he threw a beautifully executed flanker screen to Kealoha Pilares to beat a Falcon blitz, and Pilares took it 36 yards for a touchdown with 7:55 to go to give the Panthers a 28-24 lead.
The Falcons cut that to 28-27 on a 33-yard field goal with 4:57 to go – they were in scoring range but a key sack from Panther rookie Frank Alexander helped to force the field goal. That set the stage for the final dramatics.
The Panthers ultimately wasted seven sacks of Ryan and 199 rushing yards (86 by Newton) in one of the most crushing regular-season losses in team history.