ATLANTA - Once again, a Carolina Panthers game came down to the final quarter.
Once again, it proved to be a bitter end from the Panthers' perspective.
The Panthers led 17-14 entering the fourth quarter, but the Atlanta Falcons finished strong to come away with a 31-17 victory at the Georgia Dome.
"The Panthers that played in the first quarter are not the Panthers that played in the fourth quarter," Carolina quarterback Cam Newton said. "We've just got to find a way to finish. On the offensive side, put points up on the board. Defensive side of the ball, get off the field.
"At some point, you've got to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what you can do better. I'm doing a self-evaluation as we speak. It's time for a lot of people on this team to take ownership, including myself."
All six of the Panthers' games have been up for grabs in the final quarter, but Carolina has been victorious just once. The Panthers have been outscored by nine points this season over the first three quarters; in the fourth quarter, they've been outscored by 21 – mostly due to a 17-0 deficit Sunday.
"This one is a tough one to take just because of what happened in the fourth quarter," first-year head coach Ron Rivera said. "It wasn't good enough, just unacceptable.
"We're a young football team, but that's over. It's time for us to start moving forward. We're six weeks into this, and it's time for us to start playing like we've been around."
On a day when the Panthers' defense mostly made life difficult for the Falcons passing game, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan came up with a clutch play to keep alive what proved to be the game-winning touchdown drive.
With the game tied at 17 early in the fourth quarter and the Falcons facing third-and-12 from Carolina's 47-yard line, Ryan got rid of the ball just before defensive end Greg Hardy leveled him, lofting it perfectly to wide receiver Harry Douglas in the right flat for a 34-yard gain to the 13.
Four plays later, Ryan inched his way over the goal line from the 1 for a 24-17 lead with seven minutes to play.
"Third downs, you have to win," Panthers safety Charles Godfrey said. "Matt Ryan scrambled on that third down and completed that pass. If we stop that, we can win the game."
The Panthers still had plenty of time to come back, but on their second play of the ensuing drive, 305-pound defensive tackle Corey Peters stepped into the path of a screen pass intended for running back DeAngelo Williams and picked it off. It was the second of three interceptions for Newton, who completed 21-of-35 passes for 237 yards.
The Falcons then iced it with a steady diet of running back Michael Turner, who finished with 139 yards on 27 carries, putting it away when Turner scored from 2 yards out with 1:56 left.
For most of the game, it looked like the team with the ball last would win. Trailing 14-10 at halftime, the Panthers got the ball to start the second half and consumed more than half the quarter on the way to reclaiming the lead with a 13-play, 80-yard march in 8:36.
The drive featured four third-down conversions, including one on third-and-5 from the 14. Newton stepped up in the pocket to avoid a sack and then broke out into the open along the left side to score.
Newton coasted the last five yards for the sixth rushing touchdown of his rookie season to the delight of a significant number of Carolina fans on hand. He ran for 24 yards and completed 4-for-5 passes for 38 yards on the drive.
The Panthers followed that drive, however, with their first two three-and-outs of the game and then Newton's second interception that all but ended their hopes.
"For the most part we did move the ball well, but those things happen. That's a good defense, with that pass rush and in this environment," Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. "With the offense they have and their ability to stay on the field and convert third downs and put pressure on your defense, as an offense you need to take that pressure off the defense and answer."
The teams answered each other throughout the first half. The Panthers put themselves in position to make the final strike and take the lead into the break, but on first-and-goal from the 10 in the final minute, Newton's pass over the middle for wide receiver Steve Smith was tipped in the air by safety William Moore. Cornerback Brent Grimes jumped in front of Smith in the end zone for the interception.
Before that, the Panthers had scored on all of their first-half possessions – all two of them.
Carolina took a 3-0 lead when Olindo Mare capped a drive that consumed nearly seven minutes with a 42-yard field goal. The teams then matched each other with 81-yard touchdown drives that lasted nearly five minutes before Atlanta struck again with a six-minute touchdown drive.
The Falcons benefited from pass interference penalties on both touchdown marches. On the first one, wide receiver Roddy White drew a 37-yard penalty on Godfrey in the end zone, setting up Turner for a one-yard touchdown plunge. On the second one, White drew a 22-yard penalty on cornerback Chris Gamble at the 1, setting up a 1-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to fullback Ovie Mughelli.
In between, the Panthers went 81 yards with contributions from many. Newton and Williams had runs of 13 and 12 yards respectively, tight end Jeremy Shockey had receptions covering 29 and 10 yards, and wide receiver Legedu Naanee had a 17-yard catch on third-and-13, all setting up a 1-yard dive by Jonathan Stewart.
"We had an excellent game plan coming into this game. We felt like we could exploit that defense on a lot of things," Newton said. "As a whole offense, I think we let our guard down. You can't do that against a defense like this."