December 11, 2011; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kealoha Pilares (81) moves the ball down field while playing against the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium. Falcons win 31-23. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-US PRESSWIRE

Panthers Lose in a Heartbreaker, 30-28

The predicted blowout of the Panthers by the Falcons, so far at least, isn’t in the cards.

On the opening drive, Carolina Panther QB Cam Newton had a 32-yard run and finished the drive with a 17-yard TD pass to TE Greg Olson – his first TD reception of the season.

That really flipped the start, since Carolina stopped the Falcons from scoring a TD on their opening drive of the game for the first time this season. The Falcons came back to take a 10-7 lead, eventually taking it to 17-14 on two Matt Ryan TD passes to WR Roddy White. The Panthers were unable to get into scoring position on a two-minute drill while the first half ended.

Julio Jones was held without a catch in the first half, but ageless Tony Gonzalez picked up the slack with some short catches and runs for first downs.

The Panther run defense was spotty in the first half, sometimes stopping power back Michael Turner for little to no gain but showed some poor tackling at times as well. On one particular play it looked like most of the team had a chance to stop Turner but the strong RB kept those legs churning and managed to pound out a 17-yard gain on an agonizing defensive effort by the Panthers.

Carolina got the ball to start the third quarter and got a first down but had to punt. After a few short plays, Matt Ryan threw a 2-yard pass to the most unlikely of receivers, Michael Turner, who took the pass right down the middle of the field for a 60-yard TD. I haven’t checked, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the longest reception of Turner’s career. He’s not known for being a receiving threat and get this – it’s his first TD reception. EVER.

Down by ten, Cam threw a strike to Steve Smith to move the chains and help deflate a little of the momentum the Falcons had gained. Newton then had a run for a first, then a pass to Armanti Edwards for another. On the next play, Edwards took a direct snap and had Steve Smith open over the middle and threw a perfect pass, but Smith’s feet got tangled with the defender and the pass interference flag that was thrown got waved off. Another Newton completion to Olsen gave them another first down to the 20.

Sep 30, 2011; Atlanta, GA, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) carries the ball against the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-US PRESSWIRE

Then on third and 8, their first third-down attempt on the drive, Newton saw the blitz coming and bolted up the middle to the 4. On the next play, he scored a touchdown bulling his way into the endzone on a QB draw to cut the Falcons’ lead to 24-21.

That one drive in particular showed the Panthers had a lot of fight in them and were inspired not only by how the game had been close the entire time but also showed they seem to be playing a lot better as a team overall than their streaky 1-2 start would suggest.

When the Falcons got the ball back, I noticed Matt Ryan was dancing around a bit in the pocket without being under much duress. He had already been sacked 3 times in the game and a couple of plays later, Charles Johnson sacked him, forcing a punt. Now, the Panthers had a chance to take the lead.

Joe Adams’ return duties were taken over by Captain Munnerlyn today and he returned a booming punt 20 yards to give his team pretty good field position but an apparent first down catch by Steve Smith was challenged and correctly overturned upon replay. Greg Olson was visibly upset with Newton for not getting the next play off and the Panthers had to punt.

On the ensuing drive, Ryan was again sacked. After being pinned deep, Newton hit Greg Olson along the right sideline for a big gain, then Jonathan Stewart ran for another.

After Newton’s 1/5 passing on third down, OC Rob Chudzinski called a WR screen to Kealoha Pilares who ran it in for a 36-yard TD. The Falcons jumped offsides and inexplicably relaxed as the play unfolded.

On the ensuing drive, the Falcons were behind but Matt Ryan found Julio Jones on a 3rd and long to midfield for his first reception of the game. Jacquizz Rodgers caught consecutive passes for first downs, aided by a face mask penalty on rookie Josh Norman on the second catch, taking the ball to the 13.

Frank Alexander wrapped Ryan up the next play for the team’s 6th sack of the day. He was in the process of getting sacked again on the next play but got the ball away to Rodgers, allowing them a good shot at a FG to bring the Falcons to within a single point.

Carolina got the ball back with 4:57 to go and holding on to a 1-point lead, but the Falcons forced a 3-and-out. Charles Johnson forced Ryan out of bounds on a 3rd and 3 to make the Falcons punt.

Trying to run the ball to eat Falcon timeouts, Newton got what would have been the game-winning first down on a 4 yard run on 3rd and 3, but fumbled the ball. The Panthers recovered, but had lost the first down in the process AND the clock stopped due to it. Newton was on the sideline slapping his chest as if to say “that’s on me.”

Unfortunately, he was right.

After the Panthers’ much-maligned kick coverage unit was able to pin the Falcons inside the 1-yard line, Matt Ryan went deep for a 60-yard completion to the Panther 40 yard line. On the next play, Captain Munnerlyn was flagged for a 5-yard pass interference penalty. A short completion put the ball on the Panthers’ 28 yard line and another went to Harry Douglass to the 22.

Matt Bryant hit the 40-yard field goal to hand the Panthers a heartbreaking 2-point loss. The Panthers’ Charles Johnson was a beast with 3.5 sacks on the day, and the 7 sacks Matt Ryan took were the most of his career.

The game gives the Panthers a lot to build on as they proved they can play anywhere against anyone, but it’s small consolation to a developing team that needed to win this road game to have any chance at winning the division and securing a playoff spot. It could still be done, but the Falcons are now 4-0 and the Panthers 1-3.

The climb would seem to be insurmountable now and at best, the Panthers might be able to secure a Wild Card spot if they can carry this type of effort over through the course of the rest of the season.

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