A logo stenciled on the Carolina Panthers' sideline Sunday read "Play 60" in recognition of the NFL initiative that encourages youth to get 60 minutes of exercise every day.
The Panthers, however, didn't heed the advice when they stepped over the logo and across the white line for the second half.
Carolina steamed to a 23-7 halftime lead, but the Atlanta Falcons rallied for a 31-23 victory at Bank of America Stadium.
"This is tough after being up 23-7," Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble said. "We've just got to play 60 minutes of football and not just play 30 minutes. That's what happened today."
The Falcons (8-5) were dominated throughout the first half after they initially claimed a 7-0 lead, but they returned the favor in the second half. Their offense scored on three of their first four possessions, while their defense came up with the same number of takeaways (two) as first downs allowed over Carolina's first five drives.
The Panthers (4-9) did threaten to re-awaken just in time to possibly pull out the victory. Trailing 24-23, they drove into the red zone with just over five minutes to go, but Olindo Mare missed a 36-yard field goal wide left.
On the second play of the ensuing drive, Falcons rookie wide receiver Julio Jones got free for his second touchdown of the half, this one a 75-yard catch and run with 4:17 left for a 31-23 lead.
That still left the Panthers within a touchdown and two-point conversion of tying it. On third-and-10 from their own 20, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton heaved one deep for wide receiver Steve Smith, who hauled in the 48-yarder and managed to stay inbounds despite being blanketed by cornerback Dunta Robinson.
From the Atlanta 27, however, they couldn't punch it in, and Atlanta took over and successfully ran out the clock.
After the Panthers outgained Atlanta 245 yards to 117 in the first half, the Falcons outgained Carolina 277-171 in the second half.
"It most certainly was a tale of two halves," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We still have a long ways to go as a football team. We are a young team that has to understand that you have to keep going and put your foot down on the accelerator."
After a field goal on the Falcons' opening drive of the third quarter pulled them within 23-10, they seized momentum when Newton was wrapped up by defensive end John Abraham but tried to shovel a pass underhanded to running back Jonathan Stewart. Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson stepped in the path and intercepted the wayward ball.
Two plays later, running back Jacquizz Rodgers got behind linebacker James Anderson on a pass route down the left sideline and scored on a 31-yard heave from quarterback Matt Ryan to make it 23-17.
Newton tossed another interception on the next drive that resulted in a missed field goal, but the damage was done: Carolina is now 0-9 when Newton turns the ball over, 4-0 when he doesn't.
"Both interceptions were my fault, and you can't do that," Newton said. "If you expect to win in this league, you have to protect the football. I did a poor job of doing that today."
The Falcons completed their comeback early in the fourth quarter with a 10-play, 90-yard drive, keyed early by a 26-yard reception by wide receiver Roddy White on third-and-6 and capped by a 17-yard touchdown catch by Jones for a 24-23 lead with 12:42 remaining.
It was a far cry from a week ago at Tampa Bay, when the Panthers found the end zone on the opening drive of the second half to extend a nine-point lead and put the Buccaneers away.
"We really took the air out of them last week, and I thought we were going to do the same thing this week," Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "But we came out flat – three and outs, turnovers. We weren't playing ball the way we know we can play ball in the second half."
After recovering from a slow start to the game, the Panthers looked unstoppable for the remainder of the opening half.
Down 7-0, impressive catches by Smith (18 yards) and LaFell (17 yards) in heavy traffic helped get Carolina to the Atlanta 6. From there, Newton faked a run out of the shotgun that's been so successful in the red zone to get in the end zone, running toward the line of scrimmage but then stopping short and lobbing a pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey for the tying touchdown.
The teams then traded punts, but the Panthers got the better of the field position battle when Captain Munnerlyn downed Jason Baker's punt at the 4. On third-and-6 from the 8, Antwan Applewhite – lined up at defensive tackle – powered through the middle and sacked Ryan for a safety and a 9-7 lead.
"That was huge. Antwan made a great play," Panthers defensive tackle Andre Neblett said. "We were fired up after that, but we've got to learn how to keep that fire throughout the whole game."
The Panthers were without left tackle Jordan Gross (ankle), but you couldn't tell on their second snap after Atlanta's free kick. Running back DeAngelo Williams took a simple handoff around the right side and wasn't touched until his teammates swarmed in the end zone, a franchise-record 74-yard touchdown run that extended Carolina's lead to 16-7 midway through the second quarter.
The defense then forced another three-and-out to set up the offense at the Carolina 40. A 20-yard catch by Smith got the drive going, and soon after tight end Greg Olsen fielded a pass behind the line of scrimmage but had a convoy of blockers that helped him break into the open field for a 44-yard touchdown and a 23-7 advantage.
The second half, however, was an entirely different story.
"To be up 23-7 and then go 24 unanswered, I don't know what happened to us in the second half offensively," Olsen said. "To hold them to seven points at halftime, our defense played really well, but then we put them in really tough spots."