ATLANTA – There's no such thing as a moral victory in the NFL.
The Panthers made sure Sunday that there was no such thing as an easy victory, either.
Carolina's relentless rally against the Falcons technically didn't matter on this day, but it could matter someday.
"We had every chance to lay down, roll over and just let them beat up on us. But you see at the end we still had a chance to tie the game," wide receiver Jarius Wright said after the Panthers threatened to erase what felt like an insurmountable 14-point deficit in the final minutes before running out of time in a 31-24 loss.
Wright, who scored his first touchdown as a Panther earlier in the game, was seen in the locker room afterwards making sure that even in the loss, the potential impact of the final minutes wasn't lost on the team's younger receivers.
"I was telling the young guys who don't understand how much that means and how we can build off that," Wright said. "We showed the character of the guys we have in this locker room."
Wright was on a Vikings team that pulled out a miracle victory over the Saints in the NFC Division playoffs last season. The week before, the Saints were nearly knocked off in the Wild Card round by a Panthers rally reminiscent of the one Sunday. That Carolina team obviously didn't have another chance after falling short; this team has a season's worth of chances in front of it after nearly coming all the way back.
"You're down two scores and you can hang 'em up if you want to. But this team won't do that, has never done that and is not going to do that moving forward," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "We got a big stop at the end to give the ball back to the offense. That's what you're looking for, that's what you need.
"We just have to make a couple more plays earlier in the game."
The Panthers found themselves in need of a rally after Atlanta dominated the middle portion of the game, scoring 21 unanswered points to turn a narrow deficit into a significant edge at 24-10. The Panthers pulled back within seven early in the fourth quarter when Torrey Smith became the second receiver to score his first Carolina touchdown, but that comeback bid was quickly short-circuited and Atlanta appeared to put the game away.
The Falcons followed with a touchdown drive, then an interception, giving them possession with a 31-17 lead with just 6:14 left.
Even with Carolina's defense responding with its first three-and-out of the day, Carolina got the ball back at its own 4 with less than four minutes to play. That's when a third receiver – rookie DJ Moore – grabbed his first Cam Newton touchdown pass on a 51-yarder, and then the defense produced another three-and-out.
Suddenly, with 1:48 to go, the Panthers had the ball with a chance to tie it up.
"Just have to keep fighting," Smith said. "We believed we were going to win."
In last year's playoff loss, Christian McCaffrey scored on a 56-yard reception with four minutes left to trim the Saints' lead to 31-26, then the offense got the ball back with 1:51 to go and reached the 21-yard line before stalling in the final seconds. Sunday against another NFC South rival on the road, the Panthers reached the 26-yard line before running out of time.
But this time though, they have plenty of time to left to turn that competitive spirit into something greater than a moral victory.
"We came up short," Smith said, "but there was no quit."
View game photos from the Panthers loss to the Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.