After pulling off his latest stunt of late-game magic, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan was more than a little stoked.
Ryan’s unlikely 59-yard pass to Roddy White in the closing seconds helped set up a game-winning field goal as the Falcons pulled out a scintillating 30-28 victory over Carolina Sunday. The team improved to 4-0 for just the third time in franchise history and the first time since 2004.
That was quite enough excitement for the usually placid Ryan, who was seen yelling in the general direction of the Panthers “to get the [expletive] off my field” as he made his way off the Georgia Dome turf.
Simmered down later, he admitted, “It was just the heat of the battle.”
Right. But it was that kind of unforgettable day, reminiscent of a win over Chicago in his rookie season of 2008. This time, starting at his own 1-yard line, Ryan drove the Falcons into position for Matt Bryant’s 33-yard field goal with five seconds left. Bryant kick was dead-centered.
“That was a huge game for us and a great win for our team,” Ryan said. “It took us all 60 minutes this week and we knew coming into this game that it was going to be a tough one.”
It was defensive end John Abraham who set up the winning drive with a timely
forced fumble. On a third-and-2 from Atlanta’s 46, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had picked up a critical first down on a run, only to have Abraham knock the ball loose and, more importantly, backwards to the 45. The Panthers recovered but after trying to draw the Falcons offsides on fourth-and-1, they elected to punt instead.
Carolina downed Brad Nortman’s punt down at the 1-yard line with 59 seconds left. Atlanta had no timeouts.
“I was surprised,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said about the Panthers not going for it on fourth down. “[Newton] has a big body. He’s long and you thought he’d just quarterback-sneak it. But it would have been a definite gamble.”
Newton, now 0-2 as a Panther playing in his hometown, supported Carolina coach Ron Rivera’s decision to punt.
“Well, I’m a player on this football team and I listen to coaching,” Newton said. “And coach decided not to go for it on fourth down, so I back coach 110 percent.”
The Falcons’ offensive line, which struggled all day, held up at the end as Ryan dropped back to within a yard of the back of the end zone and launched a bomb to the White. He hauled in the pass over Carolina safety Haruki Nakamura at the Panthers 40.
After Gonzalez and Harry Douglas took quick receptions and got out of bounds for consecutive gains of 7 and 6 yards, Bryant was sent out to win the game.
“It’s very good to know that you’ll be able to handle the ebbs and flows of an NFL football game,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It was just a matter of time before we were going to have to play from behind. … I thought it showed the mettle of the guys in that room.”
It was remarkable that Ryan had time to throw long. Carolina’s pass rush had been relentless, sacking Ryan a career-high seven times and accumulating 12 quarterbacks hits.
“He came into the huddle and said, ‘Block it up so that we can make a big play,’” White said. “Those guys are focused. They did a hell of a job.”
White, who had eight catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns, used some crafty route-running to get open.
“They were trying to keep everything in front of them, but the guy kind of missed a jam when I went out there,” White said. “I got behind those guys.”
White also sensed that Ryan was coming his way.
“He told me to go get it,” White said. “So I knew he was throwing it to me.”
The Panthers, who hadn’t played since being routed by the New York Giants 36-7 on Sept. 20, played a rough-and-tumble game. For the second straight game against the Falcons, they had them on the ropes, but failed late. Last season in Charlotte, Carolina held a 23-7 halftime lead on Atlanta before losing 31-23.
“It was a good lesson to learn,” White said. “A lot of these games are going to be close. When you get an opportunity to move on as team, you do it and you carry a lot of confidence with you.”
The division foes went back-and-forth most of the game. White’s two touchdown catches gave the Falcons a 17-14 halftime lead. That advantage grew to 24-14 on the first possession of the second half, Ryan tossing a screen pass to Michael Turner, who rumbled for 60 yards and the first touchdown reception of his NFL career.
But Carolina answered on its next possession with a 4-yard touchdown run by Newton to make it 24-21. Asked to compete harder by Rivera after the Giants embarrassment, the Panthers were up for the challenge, adding an 81-yard touchdown drive to take a 28-24 lead, Kealoha Pilares scoring from 36 yards out with 7:55 left.
Bryant, who had already connected from 41 yards, kicked a 33-yard field goal with 2:58 to shave the lead to one point and set up his final heroics. He has yet to miss a field goal in nine attempts thus far.