No one was popping champagne bottles in the Falcons’ locker room after this one.
But in pivotal situation, the Falcons were in a celebratory mood after a morale-boosting 31-17 victory over rookie sensation Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
“I felt we got back on track,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said after watching his team string together 17 unanswered, fourth-quarter points to steam past the Panthers.
The Falcons improved to 3-3 and play the upstart Detroit Lions (5-1) next week; the Panthers dropped to 1-5.
“It’s a huge win for us,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “It was big for our morale. It was big for our confidence as a football team.”
The Panthers led 17-14 going into the fourth quarter and appeared primed to spring the upset. A defeat would have been devastating for the Falcons, the defending NFC South champions, who some considered Super Bowl contenders in the preseason.
After previously struggling for consistency, Tony Gonzalez said the Carolina performance was the closest to a full 60-minute game this season.
The Falcons found success by sticking with Michael Turner and the rushing attack. They called 35 running plays and attempted just 22 passes, with rookie wide receiver Julio Jones missing the game with a hamstring injury. Turner finished with 139 yards on 27 carries and scored two touchdowns.
The defense struggled early to get off the field on third downs. Newton converted 8 of 9 third-down situations, before the Falcons had three consecutive third-down stops to close out the game.
“We’d like to get on a roll here,” left tackle Sam Baker said.
The Falcons didn’t want to consider the prospects of dropping to 2-4, had they lost, before heading into the Detroit game, which is followed by a bye week.
“I don’t know if it turns the whole season around,” Gonzalez said. “It’s something that you can build on, knowing that you can come up with plays when you have to.”
Turner scored on a 1-yard run to give the Falcons a 7-3 lead, and fullback Ovie Mughelli caught a 1-yard touchdown pass, for a 14-10 Atlanta advantage at halftime.
The Panthers, with Newton looking far more poised than a rookie, took the lead on the quarterback’s 14-yard run to make it 17-14.
After an exchange of punts, the Falcons tied the game on Matt Bryant’s 24-yard field goal.
On the next series, different defensive looks by the Falcons’ defense started to bother Newton and the Panthers were forced to punt.
While the running game was featured, quarterback Matt Ryan picked up two key third-down conversion with passes to Gonzalez and Harry Douglas. Douglas’ catch, a 34-yarder, came on a third-and-12. Ryan capped the 10-play, 60-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring run to make it 24-17.
Defensive tackle Corey Peters intercepted Newton on the ensuing possession, Peters snagging the screen pass with one hand.
Eight plays later, Turner slammed into the end zone from 2 yards out for the final margin.
In earlier games this season, the Falcons fell behind and couldn’t stick to their rushing attack.
“We just tried to stay steady and kept hammering them,” Turner said. “We kind of wore them out at the end.”
It was Turner’s third 100-yard rushing game of the season.
“We are a run-first team,” Turner said. “I think everybody on the team would say that. We have to get in better situations and not play from behind.”
Turner believes that the Falcons wore down the Panthers’ defense.
“When you keep putting together long drives, consistently for the whole games, defenses are going to wear out,” Turner said. “We are going to keep throwing different stuff at them. We wanted to keep them off balance.”
Turner would like to see the Falcons stick to the running game.
“If it’s not broke, then don’t fix it,” Turner said.
The Falcons’ pass defense also had a strong showing, intercepting Newton three times and forcing him into a 44.6 passer rating. He had thrown for 1,610 yards over his first five games, the most ever by a rookie.
Newton, the former Auburn and Westlake High School star, completed 21 of 35 passes for 237 yards and no touchdowns. He was also sacked twice.
“He was as poised as any veteran quarterback that we’ve seen,” Robinson said. “He manages the game well and he makes plays. He can hurt you with his arm and his feet. His accuracy is way better than any rookie that I’ve seen…Cam is going to be a great quarterback in this league one day”
The Falcons hope they’ve rediscovered their winning ways with the rushing attack and timely stops on defense.
“That’s our strength,” Turner said.
Gonzalez said, “If we can keep this up, we’ll be a good team.”
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog