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What We Learned: Panthers at Falcons

1. THIRD DOWNS TROUBLESOME: Carolina struggled to get off the field on third down, and it was a major factor in its first loss of the season.

"That was probably the biggest disappointment," head coach Ron Rivera said of the third-down issues. "We put them in third-and-long situations and we just couldn't get to the quarterback. Their guy (Matt Ryan) made some plays with his feet, got outside the pocket a couple times."

Atlanta's offense converted 9-of-15 third downs, none more important than the 70-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Julio Jones on third-and-13.

2. JULIO WAS DIFFERENCE-MAKER: Take away Jones' 70-yard score, and he still had eight catches for 108 yards.

Simply put, the Atlanta star lived up to his billing on Sunday. Jones had nine receptions on 11 targets and was difficult to handle throughout.

Said cornerback Josh Norman of Jones: "He's one of the best in the league, and he came to play today."

3. FALCONS ELIMINATED CAROLINA'S EXPLOSIVE PLAYS: The Panthers, the highest scoring team in the NFL entering the game, had been thriving off explosive plays through the air in recent games. When reflecting on Atlanta's 38-0 loss at Carolina earlier in the week, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said explosive plays against his team were particularly disturbing, and limiting them was a point of emphasis in the rematch.

The Falcons got the message and made it tough on Carolina. Quarterback Cam Newton's longest pass of the day was a 19-yarder to Philly Brown in the closing moments.

"We have to play better," Newton said. "That is unacceptable, especially this time of year."

4. RUN GAME PRODUCTIVE WHEN USED: The Panthers actually had a solid day running the ball but didn't create enough opportunities to run it more often.

Carolina averaged 7.8 yards per carry, with four runners – including Newton and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery – recording a run of at least 16 yards. But while it added up to a 26th consecutive game with 100-plus rushing yards, the Panthers got their 155 yards on just 20 attempts. That's 10 fewer than any other game this season.

A good amount of that had to do with the nature of the game. Each team got just one possession in the first quarter, and in the fourth quarter Carolina was playing catch-up and ran the ball just twice.

Rookie Cameron-Artis Payne looked good again, rushing for 49 yards on just five carries. Fozzy Whittaker ran well too, with 32 yards on five carries, but he left the game midway through the third quarter with what was initially diagnosed as an ankle sprain.

5. A LOT AT STAKE IN WEEK 17: Since the Cardinals (13-2) defeated the Packers later Sunday, the Panthers (14-1) still haven't clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC. A Carolina win over the Buccaneers next week or an Arizona loss against Seattle is needed to clinch the top seed and homefield advantage throughout the postseason. The Carolina-Tampa Bay game has been flexed to a 4:25 p.m. kickoff, the same time as the Arizona-Seattle game.

View game action photos from Carolina's 20-13 loss to Atlanta.

Staff writer Max Henson and senior writer Bryan Strickland contributed to this report.

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