Falcons find no way to rattle Panthers
CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton wasn’t flawless on Sunday.
He didn’t need to be.
Newton threw for one touchdown and ran for another to overcome a shaky start, the defense intercepted Matt Ryan three times and the Carolina Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons 34-10 for their fourth straight victory.
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross was more impressed with Newton on Sunday than in the previous three games in which the third-year quarterback played near-perfect ball.
“There were times today where he could have gotten rattled,” Gross said. “He took some shots and had some turnovers, but he didn’t (get rattled). He kept on swinging.”
Newton entered on quite a streak, completing 77 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns — six passing and two rushing — and no turnovers in his previous three games.
But he had two first half interceptions and wasn’t sharp on his deep balls, regularly overthrowing his receivers.
“He got a little carried away early on and tried to make things happen,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “The ball sailed a little bit on him today and when he’s doing that it’s because he’s anxious. He’s excited. He wants to do well. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t bring the ball down a little bit because there were some big plays left out there.”
Still, Newton bounced back to throw for 249 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen, and also scored on an 8-yard run.
Newton called his play “unacceptable.”
“I didn’t put my best foot forward in the first half,” he said.
But his teammates were quick to back him up.
“Everybody gets wrapped up in stats and quarterback ratings and yards per catch or whatever,” Olsen said. “At the end of the day, when you go out and you win 34-10 and you are the quarterback — you did your job.”
The Panthers (5-3) pulled within a game of the New Orleans Saints, who lost to the New York Jets.
Fullback Mike Tolbert scored his fifth touchdown in the last four games on a 4-yard burst and cornerback Drayton Florence intercepted Ryan and returned it 38 yards for a score to seal the win.
At 2-6, the Falcons’ postseason hopes are fading fast.
The Falcons continued to struggle without Julio Jones and Roddy White. Tony Gonzalez had six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown but the running game continues to struggle as Steven Jackson and company were held to a combined 78 yards on the ground.
The Panthers defense limited Ryan to 219 yards and forced four turnovers — three interceptions.
“I know Matt. He’s going to look at this film. He’s going to obsess over it,” Gonzalez said. “I have no doubt he’s going to bounce back.”
The Panthers got a huge break early in the fourth quarter.
Leading 17-10, Carolina’s Brandon LaFell broke free in Atlanta territory for a big gain but had the ball punched out from behind by cornerback Asante Samuel. The Falcons had a chance to recover, but the ball bounced right back into LaFell’s arms while he was on the ground.
Newton scored on an 8-yard run on the next play to give Carolina a 24-10 lead with nine minutes remaining.
“When you’re winning, things happen in your favor,” LaFell said. “With all of the bad luck around here last year, that thing would have been lost. We got the luck of the bounce.”
The Panthers put the game away on the next possession when Florence stepped in front of Ryan’s pass in the flat and returned it for the score — the first “pick 6” allowed by the Falcons since 2010, a span of 47 games.
“If you play sports long enough, there will be ups and downs, and waves throughout that,” Ryan said. “I’ve played poorly before, but it’s about trying to stop that at one, and moving on. I wasn’t able to do that.”
Carolina led 14-10 at halftime despite the two interceptions by Newton.
Newton’s 13-quarter streak of turnover-free football ended when he went long for Ted Ginn Jr. and was intercepted by Desmond Trufant in the second quarter. Newton turned it over again in the final seconds of the first half on an interception by rookie Robert Alford in the back of the end zone, ending a golden scoring opportunity.
Atlanta’s only touchdown of the game came when Ryan hooked up on a 17-yard strike with Gonzalez in the back of the end zone.
The Falcons might have had more, but Steven Jackson’s 2-yard touchdown run was nullified on a holding penalty on lineman Garrett Reynolds forcing the Falcons to settle for a Matt Bryant field goal.
The Panthers lost starting right guard Chris Scott and backup Jeff Byers to injuries on Sunday, forcing them to use former defensive tackle Nate Chandler at that spot.
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