CHARLOTTE – It wasn't their most complete performance of the season, but the Carolina Panthers aren't going apologize for beating the Atlanta Falcons 34-10 at Bank of America Stadium and earing their fourth consecutive win.
And they certainly aren't going to apologize for having a bounce go their way in the process.
"We've had balls that didn't bounce our way for a couple years now," tight end Greg Olsen said. "You won't hear us apologize for that."
The Panthers held a 17-10 lead early in the fourth quarter when quarterback Cam Newton threw a pass to wide receiver Brandon LaFell on third-and-6 from the Atlanta 38-yard line.
The ball was thrown just pass the outstretched arms of cornerback Asante Samuel, allowing LaFell to make the catch and turn upfield.
"I ran a 7-route, and he squatted on it; I thought he was going to pick the ball," LaFell said. "But Cam had good ball placement and put it outside just for me to catch it. I thought it was smooth sailing."
As LaFell sprinted toward the end zone, Samuel chased him down and popped the ball out of his hands.
"I'm watching the ball bounce and I'm just praying it bounces back to me," LaFell said. "Luckily, it did."
And luckily, LaFell held on.
"They were trying to poke me in the eyes, grabbing here and there," Lafell said. "But I wouldn't let that ball go."
LaFell gathered the loose ball at the Atlanta 8-yard line for a 30-yard gain. On the next play, Newton ran off right end for a touchdown to give Carolina a 24-10 lead.
Then, on the second play of the ensuing Falcons' possession, cornerback Drayton Florence jumped in front of a Matt Ryan pass for wide receiver Drew Davis and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.
The Panthers extended their lead to 31-10. In a handful of plays, a hard-fought, one-possession game was suddenly decided.
"We got some breaks, and things are going in our direction," said linebacker Thomas Davis, who recorded his first interception of the season on tipped pass in the third quarter. "It's not going to always be pretty. But as long as we continue to fight and continue to work as a team we come away with victories like today."
The Panthers took advantage of a takeaway to take a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted Ryan's pass for tight end Tony Gonzalez over the middle at the Atlanta 39-yard line.
Carolina then drove to the 4-yard line before fullback Mike Tolbert plowed through a hole up the gut for the game's first score.
After Matt Bryant converted a 28-yard field goal for the Falcons at the start of the second quarter, the Panthers extended their lead with a perfect fourth-down play.
On fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 14, Newton faked a handoff, rolled right and found Olsen wide open in the end zone for the touchdown.
"You have those type of plays that you dream about all the time, when the guys is wide open," Newton said. "The worst thing that could possibly happen is you overthrow him, you underthrow him, or he drops the ball. So, it's unbelievable focus by Greg to catch the ball and a great call by (offensive coordinator Mike) Shula."
Said Olsen: "We said in the huddle, 'We really have to sell it.' Fourth-and-1 the last couple weeks, we've been pretty much a run first team. It was a great call. I was the only guy out there and I was just praying that I caught it."
The Falcons cut the lead to four when Ryan connected with Gonzalez for a 17-yard touchdown with just under two minutes left in the first half.
Carolina appeared poised to score again in the final seconds before halftime, but as Newton attempted to throw the ball away, cornerback Robert Alford intercepted the pass and tapped both feet in the back of the end zone.
"I've got to throw the ball out of the end zone clearly," Newton said.
Graham Gano's 55-yard field goal in the third quarter gave the Panthers a 17-10 lead.
The fourth quarter then belonged to the Panthers. After LaFell's fortunate fumble recovery, Carolina scored 17 consecutive points to earn a decisive victory.
"It's an indication that we're starting to evolve as a football team," head coach Ron Rivera said. "What we did in the second half is what we're capable of."