FLOWERY BRANCH — In Cam Newton’s homecoming as a professional, the Falcons intercepted three passes and finished strong to post a 31-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers. The win, coupled with Tampa Bay’s victory over New Orleans, leaves the defending NFC South champions one game out of first place.
What we learned
1. The run game still works: The Falcons put on a power-running display with 35 runs for 166 yards and three touchdowns. Michael Turner led the way with a season-high 139 yards on 27 carries (5.1 per rush). The Falcons keyed on working the outside creases of the Carolina defense and cut Turner loose on some toss sweeps. He ran with authority, barreling over defenders as he finished all of his runs strong.
2. Harry Douglas can make the big catch: Douglas, the fourth-year wide receiver, started for the injured Julio Jones and was a few missed connections away from having a mega-game. He had a favorable matchup against Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and the Falcons tried to get him the ball four times. He got open deep twice, but the passes were overthrown. He caught the other two passes thrown his way, including a 34-yarder on third-and-12 to keep the game-winning drive alive. Douglas normally plays the slot, but had to move outside. Falcons coach Mike Smith credited the offensive staff with getting Douglas ready for the position switch.
3. Pass protection is still a concern: The offensive line gave up one sack and five quarterback hits. They have given up just two sacks in the last three games, but Ryan is still getting hit too often. For the season, they have yielded 15 sacks and 40 quarterback hits. Turner did his part in pass protection, picking up a blitzing cornerback in the second half.
No new injuries were announced during the game. Wide receiver Julio Jones (hamstring), cornerback Christopher Owens (concussion) and safety James Sanders (hamstring) were inactive because of injuries. The Falcons are hoping to get all three players back for the Detroit game.
The numbers game
25 — The Falcons have forced at least one turnover in each of their last 25 games, the NFL’s longest streak. They have 12 takeaways through six games.
3 — Ryan’s one-yard touchdown run was the third rushing touchdown of his career.
8 — Safety Thomas DeCoud led the defense with a team-high eight tackles.
67 — The Panthers converted on 8 of 12 (67 percent) of their third down opportunities.
43 –Punter Matt Bosher averaged 43 yards on three punts and placed two punts inside the 20-yard line.
“Cam Newton is a superstar.”
–Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez on Carolina’s rookie quarterback.
Ryan pushed his home record to 22-3 at the Georgia Dome. . . The Falcons played penalty-free football in the second half. They had four penalties for 57 yards in the first half. Safety William Moore (pass interference), left tackle Sam Baker (holding), wide receiver Roddy White (unnecessary roughness) and defensive end John Abraham (roughing the passer) committed the penalties. . . After dropping two interceptions in the season-opener against Chicago, safety Thomas DeCoud now has an interception in three of the last four games. His three interceptions ties his career-high set in 2009.
Atlanta (3-3) travels to play the upstart Detroit Lions (5-1) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Ford Field. This will be the 34th meeting. Detroit holds a 23-10 edge in the series. In the last meeting on Sept. 7, 2008, Ryan, in his first NFL game, threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins on his first pass in the league and went on to lead the Falcons to a 34-21 victory.
–D. Orlando Ledbetter, The Atlanta Falcons beat blog