CHARLOTTE – The Falcons controlled things well into the second quarter, but two late first-half touchdowns spurred the Panthers to a 20-17 victory.
"My gut feeling is we missed some opportunities on all sides of the ball," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I thought we did some really good things. I thought we showed what we could potentially become."
With the Falcons leading 10-0 with 4:35 remaining in the second quarter, they tested the Panthers' defense on fourth down. Linebacker and captain Thomas Davis stuffed running back Devonta Freeman for no gain, forcing a turnover on downs.
"I think the fourth down stop was huge, most certainly because the offense went down and scored," Rivera said.
Two 15-yard penalties and a 24-yard pitch-and-catch to wide receiver Devin Funchess led to running back Christian McCaffrey's first rushing touchdown of the season. The first-round pick corralled a pitch from quarterback Cam Newton and strolled into the end zone untouched from four yards out.
On the first play of the Falcons' ensuing drive, the Panthers defense stepped up once more. Safety Mike Adams picked off quarterback Matt Ryan and returned the interception 40 yards into Falcons territory.
"Well they ran that play earlier and [Julio] was open," Adams said on the interception. "I knew he was open and I knew they were going to come back to it.
"It was huge to have that before the half and to score before the half. It was a momentum swing because they were driving."
It only took the Panthers four plays to turn the turnover into six points. Newton ultimately scrambled to his right and acrobatically dove across the pylon for his team-leading fourth rushing touchdown of the season.
"I think the biggest thing more so than anything is he does his job," Rivera said. "He sees opportunities and he takes them. One of the nakeds was really what he read. It wasn't called. It was his decision and he made one hell of a decision on it."
That gave the Panthers a 14-10 advantage.
Carolina added to its lead in the third quarter. Graham Gano tacked on two field goals – 31-yards and 45-yards – to give the Panthers a 20-10 lead.
Despite falling behind two scores, Atlanta didn't go away. On fourth down with 8:20 remaining in the game, Julio Jones broke away from the defense. Ryan threw a 61-yard strike to the wide receiver, who was wide open in the end zone, but the should-have-been touchdown pass slipped through his grasp and fell incomplete.
"I didn't take advantage of the opportunity," Jones said on the drop. "I just missed it."
Atlanta came back on the next possession and cut the deficit to one score. Ryan orchestrated a seven-play, 92-yard drive that was capped off with a 19-yard screen pass to running back Tevin Coleman.
Now down by just a field goal, the Falcons had an opportunity inside the final two minutes to force overtime or steal a victory, but Carolina's defense rose to the occasion. The front seven pressured Ryan into throwing three consecutive incomplete passes, forcing another turnover on downs and securing the win.
With the win the Panthers improve to 6-3 on the season and 2-1 in the division, a half game behind the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints.
"Division games kind of count as two, and it was good for us to get a win at home," linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "The last few games we hadn't been able to do that, and in this league you've got to be able to do that."
View the top photos from Panthers vs. Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez and second shooters Andrew Dye and Jamey Price.