ATLANTA - The Falcons scored 21 unanswered points and held on to hand the Panthers their first loss of the season, 31-24, in an NFC South showdown at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Panthers took an early 10-3 lead before Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan put his stamp on three touchdown drives to seize control for the Falcons. Carolina threatened to rally when quarterback Cam Newton used his arm to help lead an 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Torrey Smith early in the fourth quarter. That brought the Panthers within 24-17, but then Ryan responded with an 8-yard touchdown run, increasing the Falcons lead back to 14.
A Newton interception on a pass that bounced off running back C.J. Anderson on the ensuing drive appeared to ice the game, but the Panthers managed to make it interesting. Rookie wide receiver DJ Moore turned his first career catch into a 51-yard touchdown with 2:20 left to pull the Panthers within seven, and Carolina got the ball back with 1:48 left and moved into Atlanta territory but ran out of time.
Despite Ryan edging Newton in the win column, both quarterbacks made big plays throughout the contest. Newton finished the game 32-of-45 for 335 yards with three touchdown passes while Ryan completed 23 of his 28 passes for 272 yards and four touchdowns.
For the second straight week, Newton led the team with 42 rushing yards while running back Christian McCaffrey also led the team again with 102 receiving yards on 14 catches - matching the franchise record. Rookie tight end Ian Thomas, in place of Greg Olsen, nabbed two catches for 10 yards. His efforts were aided by Smith and Moore, as well as wide receivers Devin Funchess and Jarius Wright - who combined for 139 yards.
A 22-yard Anderson run on the first snap of the game eventually set up a 54-yard field goal by kicker Graham Gano to give the Panthers a 3-0 lead. The Falcons would answer back a short while later with a field goal of their own, a 44-yarder from kicker Matt Bryant.
Early in the second quarter, tensions rose between the NFC South rivals as Carolina began building momentum.
As Newton slid following a 10-yard scramble, safety Damontae Kazee delivered a big shot to his head. Once cooler heads prevailed, Kazee, who replaced injured Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal in the starting lineup, was hit with a helmet-to-helmet penalty and was ejected from the contest.
Newton would recover quickly from the hit, not missing a snap after a quick medical check and capping off a 13-play, 70-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Wright to put Carolina up 10-3.
After a rough Week 1 red zone performance, Ryan converted on both of his first-half attempts from inside the 20-yard line. Ryan connected with rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley and tight end Austin Hooper for touchdowns to give Atlanta a 17-10 lead going into halftime. After a day of dealing with cornerbacks James Bradberry and rookie Donte Jackson, Riley finished with 64 receiving yards, matching veteran wide receiver Julio Jones' output.
After a crafty catch by Jones to open the third quarter, Jackson would earn his first career interception on a pass from Ryan to Jones on the next play. But a quick three-and-out would give the Falcons the ball back at their 42, and Ryan would go on to score on a 1-yard sneak to put the Falcons up 24-10. They converted all four red zone trips into touchdowns.
The Panthers will head back to Charlotte where they will host the Cincinnati Bengals (2-0) in Week 3 next Sunday.