CHARLOTTE -- The Panthers started strong with an early 7-0 lead, but the Falcons took off in the third quarter and topped Carolina 24-10 in the Panthers' home finale at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
After an interesting first half concluded with a 10-10 tie, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan began the second half with a monster 75-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley, giving Atlanta its first lead of the game.
A sack on quarterback Taylor Heinicke, starting in place of the injured Cam Newton, spoiled Carolina's ensuing drive and forced a punt soon after. Both teams traded empty possessions until midway through the third when Atlanta struck again. Ryan found wide receiver Mohamed Sanu for a 44-yard catch-and-run touchdown to put the Falcons up 24-10.
Carolina controlled the rest of the frame, marching into Atlanta territory, but Falcons cornerback Brian Poole picked off a Heinicke pass intended for rookie wideout DJ Moore with six seconds remaining.
Early in the fourth, a failed Carolina fourth-down conversion gave Atlanta the ball back on its 6, but a fumble recovery by defensive end Julius Peppers gave Carolina some life. On fourth-and-10, the offense looked to make a play, but a sack by Falcons defensive end Bruce Irvin ended Carolina's home finale on a sour note.
The Panthers kicked off Heinicke's first NFL start in style with a 14-play, 73-yard scoring drive. The 25-year-old rolled to his left and threw to rookie tight end Ian Thomas in traffic from 1 yard out for his first NFL touchdown pass. It also was Thomas' first touchdown catch.
Ryan and the Falcons responded with a 13-play, 85-yard scoring drive of their own. Ryan rolled to his right and hit wideout Julio Jones with a 1-yard pass near the end of the first quarter to even the score.
After each team's next drive ended with a three-and-out, a pair of unlikely turnovers threatened to shift the momentum. On the first play of Carolina's third drive, receiver Jarius Wright fumbled a short pass from Heinicke, which the Falcons recovered on the Carolina 13. On the very next play, a Kyle Love strip-sack on Ryan turned the ball back over to the Panthers, continuing the mirror-image trend. It was the defensive tackle's third forced fumble of the year.
A scary moment occurred for Carolina moments later when Heinicke went down with an elbow injury on a hit that saw Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett flagged for roughing the passer. Rookie Kyle Allen replaced Heinicke to make his NFL debut and helped position the Panthers for a 50-yard field goal from kicker Chandler Catanzaro to go up 10-7.
Atlanta again tied the game after a pass break-up by safety Eric Reid on third-and-2 forced a 39-yard Matt Bryant field goal. At the two-minute warning with Carolina on the Atlanta 19, Heinicke made his return, relieving Allen after his perfect debut (4-for-4 for 38 yards). The Panthers took several shots at the end zone, but a Heinicke interception at the 2 with 56 seconds remaining ended the half with a 10-10 tie.