ATLANTA – Undefeated no more.
The Carolina Panthers suffered their first defeat of the season Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, a 20-13 loss at the Georgia Dome in Week 16. The loss ended the third-longest regular season winning streak in NFL history at 18 games.
"It's just disappointing," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We didn't coach to our abilities, we didn't play to our abilities. But you have to give them credit.
"We weren't good enough as a football team, that's the bottom line."
In the fourth quarter, when Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan fumbled a shotgun snap that cornerback Josh Norman recovered and returned to the Atlanta 36-yard line, it looked like it was more than the ball that had slipped through his hands.
The Falcons were leading 14-10 with 9:36 remaining in the game, and that mishap on third-and-10 gave Carolina a prime opportunity to pull ahead. It was a break the Panthers needed, the kind of break the Panthers had taken advantage of throughout their 14 victories to start the season.
But this was a different day with a different outcome.
The Panthers were forced to settle for a 47-yard field goal after three plays. The Falcons' lead was cut to one with 7:59 remaining, but that was as close as Carolina would get.
Atlanta kicker Shayne Graham converted a 37-yard field goal, giving the Falcons a 17-13 lead with 2:23 to go. Quarterback Cam Newton's pass to tight end Greg Olsen fell incomplete on fourth-and-5, but the Panthers got one more chance after Graham kicked a 54-yard field goal to make it a seven-point game with 1:35 left.
"We didn't do anything about it," Newton said.
After a 19-yard completion to Philly Brown, Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley strip-sacked Newton, and defensive end Adrian Clayborn made the recovery to seal it for Atlanta.
"That's kind of how the game was – we did something positive and then we stalled out," Newton said. "But we know what we have to do. We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We'll get back on our feet and not let this happen again."
Early on, Carolina had the look of a team ready to win its 15th game of the season. The Panthers opened the scoring on the first possession of the game, producing an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Newton ran almost untouched up the middle for an 8-yard score.
The Falcons were ready to send on the punt team after losing five yards on their first three plays, but an unnecessary roughness penalty on cornerback Charles Tillman, who was tangled up with wideout Roddy White, kept the drive alive.
"Me being a professional, I just have to keep my composure and not let it get to that," Tillman said. "That was a selfish play on my part."
Atlanta took advantage, using four third-down conversions to produce a 16-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to tie the game early in the second quarter.
"It's huge," Rivera said of the drive-extending penalty. "But there was nothing we could do about it. They drove the distance. We had a couple third downs where we should have got off the field, but we didn't, and they scored a touchdown."
The Panthers threatened to take the lead late in the first half, but Newton was sacked for a 16-yard loss on second-and-1 from the Atlanta 21-yard line and Carolina was eventually forced to punt.
Graham Gano put the Panthers back in front with a 33-yard field goal in the third quarter, but the Falcons responded with a remarkable play that proved to be the game winner.
On third-and-13, Ryan avoided the rush and bought enough time to launch a pass deep down the field to wide receiver Julio Jones. Linebacker Luke Kuechly and safety Kurt Coleman were in tight coverage, but Coleman slipped and Jones reached over Kuechly to make an incredible 70-yard touchdown catch.
"Matt threw one up there, and Julio made a great play on it," Kuechly said. "That's really all there is. I thought I was in a good spot, but he went up and got it."
The touchdown strike on third-and-long was one of many third-down conversions for the Falcons, who converted 9-of-15 on the day.
"We have to execute way better than we did today," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "They made more plays, and that's the name of this game."
View game action photos from Carolina's 20-13 loss to Atlanta.