CHARLOTTE – Late in the third quarter, the Panthers decided they weren't going to let Sunday's pivotal game against the Atlanta Falcons end without a fight.
But a fourth quarter surge wasn't enough to beat the Falcons, who claimed a 19-17 victory and first place in the NFC South.
"Defense played really well and gave us a bunch of opportunities," center Ryan Kalil said. "Offensively, we came to the party too late."
Trailing 16-3, Carolina quite literally fought back.
"I'm proud and excited about the way they stepped up and weren't going to let themselves get pushed around," head coach Ron Rivera said.
A series of heated post-whistle skirmishes and a personal foul on each team energized the Panthers and the crowd at Bank of America Stadium.
"It brought some energy to the whole team, and that's what you need," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "After that, everything picked up."
Linebacker Thomas Davis delivered a huge hit on wide receiver Devin Hester, forcing a fumble that Kuechly recovered at the Carolina 30-yard line with two minutes left in the third quarter.
"The defense was playing well the whole game, but the turnover they got there kind of sparked the offense," wide receiver Philly Brown said.
Two highlight-reel, fourth-quarter touchdown catches by rookie wide receivers gave Carolina a 17-16 lead with 6:20 remaining. Kelvin Benjamin juggled and eventually secured a 22-yard touchdown, and Brown sprinted past the last line of defense for a 47-yard touchdown on the second play of next possession.
But Atlanta used a 12-play, 54-yard drive to set up Matt Bryant for a 44-yard field goal to regain the lead with 2:08 remaining.
"We needed to make one more play on defense," Kuechly said. "We did a good job for most of the game… But you've still got to make one or two more plays."
The Panthers moved down field and forced Atlanta to use all of its timeouts before facing third-and-five from the Falcons' 27-yard line with 1:31 left. They handed the ball to running back Jonathan Stewart for a loss of one, setting up Graham Gano for a 46-yard attempt.
"I made the decision that I felt was best at that point in the game," Rivera said of playing for the field goal.
Gano's kick just missed wide left.
Carolina used their two remaining timeouts to get one last crack at a comeback. The Panthers got the ball at their own 16-yard line with 22 seconds left.
Quarterback Cam Newton tossed three completions to Benjamin. At the end of the third catch, Benjamin alertly handed the ball to tight end Greg Olsen, avoiding a tackle inbounds that would have ended the game and allowing Olsen to get out of bounds with one second left.
Gano attempted a game-winning 63-yard field goal, but the kick was blocked, resulting in a gut-wrenching fifth consecutive loss for Carolina.
"Frustrating, especially because it seems like a lot of the same mistakes," Kalil said. "Good teams do a good job of minimizing those or at least learning from them and we haven't done a good job of that."