It wasn’t the Super Bowl. And it wasn’t a 25-point lead. But stop us if you’ve heard this one.
After spotting Atlanta a 10-point lead in the first quarter, the Carolina Panthers stormed back for a key NFC South victory on Sunday, beating the Falcons 20-17 at Bank of America Stadium.
Panthers fans have delighted in reminding their NFC South rivals about the 28-3 third-quarter lead they gave up in a Super Bowl LI loss to New England in February, including with a sign outside the stadium on Sunday.
Inside the stadium it was Cam Newton, an Atlanta native and offseason resident, and a stout Panthers defense who were their tormentors – starting with two minutes to play in the first half.
The Carolina defense, which had allowed three offensive points by the opponents in the past two games, had allowed 10 in the first quarter, and the Panthers trailed 10-0.
Then Newton got Carolina (6-3) going.
After encouraging the crowd at the two-minute warning, with the Panthers having a first and goal at the Atlanta 4, Newton recognized the importance of the moment.
Christian McCaffrey scored his first rushing touchdown on the next play to cut Atlanta’s lead to 10-7.
Panthers safety Mike Adams’ second interception in as many games – and his 40-yard return – started a joyous sprint by his defensive teammates – and set up Newton’s diving touchdown dunk on Desmond Trufant’s head with 23 seconds left in the first half for a 14-10 Panthers lead.
“I thought the defense did a good job,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Mike Adams had the big interception and the return that set up our touchdown, and that’s one of the things we look for is to get those opportunities from our defense. They set a good tempo for us.”
Two Graham Gano field goals stretched the lead to 20-10 in the second half before Tevin Coleman’s 19-yard touchdown reception cut Carolina’s lead to 20-17 with 3:25 to play.
After a 3-and-out by the Panthers, the Falcons (4-4) got the ball back at their 21 after a 57-yard Michael Palardy punt, with 2:18 to play.
Panthers safety Kurt Coleman put a crushing hit on Tevin Coleman for a loss of 3 on first down. Two incompletions brought up fourth down. Kuechly broke up the fourth-down pass, giving the ball back to the Panthers at the Atlanta 18, and Carolina ran out the clock.
The Panthers remain a half-game behind New Orleans (6-2) in the NFC South after the Saints’ rout of Tampa Bay on Sunday.
“My understanding is New Orleans won,” Rivera said. “Right now we’re just trying to keep pace.”
The Panthers host the Miami Dolphins on Monday, Nov. 13, in their next game. And the return meeting with Atlanta? New Year’s Eve.
Three who mattered
Cam Newton: Newton was once again the Panthers’ leading rusher with 86 yards on nine carries and a touchdown. He completed 13 of 23 passes for 137 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions.
Julio Jones: Atlanta’s star wide receiver had the first 100-yard game by a runner or receiver against the Panthers this season, finishing with 118 yards on six catches, but his drop of a potential 38-yard touchdown pass from Ryan surprised everyone – including Kurt Coleman, who appeared to comfort Jones afterward.
“Hey, everybody gets a break once in a while, don’t we?” Rivera said afterward.
Graham Gano: In the third quarter, Panthers kicker Graham Gano shook hands with all military members from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base who were part of the flight crews that performed the pre-game fly over.
▪ Atlanta’s Julio Jones gained 34 on a pass reception on the game’s first play from scrimmage when James Bradberry slipped. Bradberry said he knew the Falcons would test him early and often, and they did.
▪ A fan with a Kelvin Benjamin jersey – Buffalo Bills version – was in the club seats section in front of the press box. Nice reaction time there.
▪ Newton was furious the Panthers weren’t going for it on fourth and 1 in Atlanta territory late in the third. After the Panthers challenged the spot and lost, the Panthers put Newton back on the field, Atlanta called timeout and Newton snuck for a first down. A Graham Gano field goal for a 20-10 Carolina lead was the result.
▪ Matt Bryant’s 53-yard field goal with 12:16 to play in the first quarter gave the Falcons a 3-0 lead.
▪ Atlanta’s Keanu Neal both caused and recovered a first-quarter fumble by Jonathan Stewart. He stripped the ball away as Stewart fought for yardage. The Falcons then drove 61 yards in eight plays, taking a 10-0 lead on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Mohamed Sanu.
▪ Stewart fumbled again, caused by Neal again, on the next Panthers possession, and the Falcons recovered at their 20. Previously, the most recent Panthers running back to fumble twice in a game was Lamar Smith in Week 5 of 2002 against the Cardinals, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
▪ Gano made a 31-yard field goal on the first possession of the second half for a 17-10 lead. On the season, he is 19-of-20 on field goals and 15-of-16 on extra points. He also has 39 touchbacks on 42 kickoffs, including 5-for-5 Sunday.
▪ Carolina’s two sacks of Ryan came on consecutive plays in the third quarter, by Wes Horton and Mario Addison.
▪ Palardy punted five times for a 48.8-yard average. Three of them were downed inside the 20.
They said it
“We were fortunate. We made some mistakes. The first thing coach (Steve) Wilks will talk about is the dirty eyes.” – Rivera, on some missed assignments in the passing game on defense.
“We’re playing pretty average football right now and so our record is pretty average.” – Ryan, on the Falcons’ 4-4 record.
“If we can get Bank of America Stadium with a pulse, that’s when we’re at our best. That’s what I was trying to do.” – Newton on his efforts to energize the crowd.
“He said, ‘Coach, I got it,’ and I said ‘Hey, go get it then.’” – Rivera, on Newton’s desire to go for a first down on fourth-and-1, when the Panthers were initially going to kick a field goal.