ATLANTA (AP) — Welcome back to the NFC South. It’s shaping up to be another entertaining race.
The Carolina Panthers somehow found a way to have a last-gasp chance to beat the Atlanta Falcons after twice trailing by 14 points in the second half.
Playing without injured running back Devonta Freeman, the Falcons still had big production on the ground and survived Cam Newton’s desperation pass to the end zone as time expired to beat the Panthers 31-24 on Sunday.
It was a dramatic ending to a rivalry game.
“At the end, I don’t think there was anybody who wasn’t up and screaming and feeling wild,” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn. “You couldn’t hear anything.”
It was an important win for the Falcons (1-1) following last week’s loss at Philadelphia in their opener. With another loss, they would have trailed the Panthers (1-1) and Tampa Bay by two games only two weeks into the season. Instead, they’re one of three teams tied at 1-1, with only the Buccaneers still unbeaten in the division that sent three teams to the playoffs last season.
Matt Ryan passed for 272 yards with two touchdowns and had his first career game with two rushing touchdowns for Atlanta. Freeman was held out with a sore right knee, and Tevin Coleman ran for 107 yards in his starting role. Rookie Ito Smith added 46 yards rushing as the Falcons ran for 170 yards.
Atlanta led 24-10 following Ryan’s 1-yard scoring run in the third quarter and 31-17 following his improbable 8-yard scoring run midway through the final period.
Newton’s 51-yard touchdown pass to rookie D.J. Moore cut the lead to seven points. Newton looked for Moore again on the game’s final play. Moore couldn’t adjust after linebacker De’Vondre Campbell missed a chance for an interception.
“I had a good shot at it but it just came down too fast through his arms as I reacted,” Moore said.
Here are some takeaways from the Falcons’ win in their home opener:
Falcons safety Damontae Kazee was ejected after leading with his helmet on a hit to Newton early in the second quarter. Newton slid after a run before the hit by Kazee, the fill-in starter for Keanu Neal, who will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury.
Newton was quickly checked on the sideline before returning to the field without missing a play.
“It was fine,” Newton said. “It looked worse than it was. I’m just lucky that nothing pretty much happened. This game isn’t fit for cheap shots like that but at the end of the day you can’t blame him. He’s playing as hard as he can, I’m playing as hard as I can.”
Falcons rookie Calvin Ridley got a chance to celebrate his first NFL catch . Then his first touchdown.
The top pick out of Alabama hauled in an 11-yard scoring pass from Ryan with 4:03 left in the first half, erasing Carolina’s early 10-3 lead. Ridley had four catches for 64 yards after being held without a reception in Week 1.
Similarly, Moore’s 51-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter was the first career catch for the Panthers’ rookie.
BRACE MALFUNCTION II: Matt Schaub made his first appearance since the 2016 season, but it was for only one ugly play.
Schaub, Ryan’s backup, entered the game after Ryan ran to the sideline following a 5-yard run in the first quarter. Ryan slid on the play, causing the brace on his left knee to move out of position. While Ryan was having the brace adjusted, Schaub was on the field long enough only for a fumble. He fell on the loose ball for a loss of 8 yards, and Ryan returned to the game.
Ryan’s knee brace also slipped out of position, again after he slid at the end of a run, in the Falcons’ loss at Philadelphia last week. The Falcons called a timeout as personnel quickly cut off the brace.
ROOKIE FILL-IN: Panthers rookie tight end Ian Thomas had two catches for 10 yards as the fill-in for Greg Olsen, who is out with a broken bone in his foot.
INJURY REPORT: Falcons left guard Andy Levitre (elbow) and backup defensive end Derrick Shelby (groin) left the game. The Panthers lost starting strong safety Da’Norris Searcy (concussion) and cornerback Donte Jackson (hamstring).