1. Kuechly’s interception of Ryan
The score: Scoreless, 10:18 left in first quarter.
The situation: Falcons’ ball, second-and-9 at the Atlanta 28.
The play: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan tried to thread a pass into triple coverage to future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly read it the whole way, snared it and returned it 3 yards to the 39.
Why it mattered: After the Panthers went 3-and-out on their first possession, Kuechly’s interception gave the offense a short field to work with. Seven plays later, fullback Mike Tolbert scored on a 4-yard run for a 7-0 lead.
2. Douglas’ long catch-and-run
The score: Panthers 14, Falcons 3, 4:07 left in second quarter.
The situation: Falcons’ ball, first-and-10 at the Atlanta 20.
The play: Ryan hit wide receiver Harry Douglas on a short crossing route with Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn trailing in coverage. Douglas eluded a Munnerlyn tackle attempt and turned upfield for a 41-yard gain to the Panthers’ 39.
Why it mattered: Douglas’ catch was Atlanta’s first offensive play after the Panthers had taken a 12-point lead and were threatening to run away with the game. Five plays after Douglas’ big gain, Ryan found Gonzalez for a 17-yard touchdown to make it 14-10.
3. Alford’s interception of Newton after review
The score: Panthers 14, Falcons 10, 20 seconds left in second quarter.
The situation: Panthers’ ball, first-and-10 at the Atlanta 19.
The play: After driving into scoring position running the 2-minute offense, Newton lofted a pass to the corner of the end zone that was well beyond wideout Steve Smith. Cornerback Robert Alford caught it, but was initially ruled out of bounds. Officials reversed the call after a replay review.
Why it mattered: Newton’s second interception of the first half came on a miscommunication between him and Smith, head coach Ron Rivera said. It kept the Panthers from adding to their first-half lead and taking momentum into the locker room.
4. LaFell’s catch/fumble/recovery
The score: Panthers 17, Falcons 10, 10:12 left in fourth quarter.
The situation: Panthers’ ball, third-and-6 at the Atlanta 38.
The play: Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel gambled and broke on a Newton pass, which Brandon LaFell caught along the sideline. Samuel punched the ball out from behind, and LaFell recovered at the Atlanta 8 for 30-yard gain after Alford failed to cover it.
Why it mattered: On the following play, Newton strolled into the end zone on a quarterback sweep for an 8-yard touchdown run that increased the Panthers’ lead to two touchdowns.
5. Johnson’s third-down sack of Ryan
The score: Panthers 31, Falcons 10, 7:18 left in fourth quarter.
The situation: Falcons’ ball, third-and-7 at the Atlanta 23.
The play: Flushed out of the pocket, Ryan rolled to his left looking for a receiver downfield. Defensive end Charles Johnson chased Ryan down from behind for the Panthers’ first sack of the game and an 8-yard loss.
Why it mattered: The game was effectively sealed on the Falcons’ previous series when Drayton Florence intercepted a Ryan pass and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown. But the sack by Johnson, who played with a strained right groin, made sure the Falcons didn’t threaten at all.
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