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Panthers struggle late, lose 31-17 to Falcons

By Charles Odum

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Oct. 16 2011 4:56 p.m. MDT

ATLANTA — This wasn't the homecoming Cam Newton planned.

Carolina led Atlanta by a field goal entering the final quarter, but Newton threw two of his three interceptions in the final 15 minutes as the Atlanta Falcons rallied for a 31-17 win over the Panthers on Sunday.

Newton, an Atlanta native, did not have a touchdown pass while matching his career high for interceptions as Carolina (1-5) fell deeper into last place in the NFC South. He led the Panthers with 50 yards rushing on six carries.

Newton's 14-yard scoring run in the third quarter gave Carolina a 17-14 lead. From there, the game turned ugly for the Panthers.

"At some point, you've got to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what can you do to make it better, and I'm doing a self-evaluation as we speak," Newton said. "It's not the time that you point the fingers and say, 'It's his fault.' It's time that we as a team take ownership of ourselves."

Newton completed 21 of 35 passes for 237 yards and matched the three interceptions he threw in a 30-23 loss to Green Bay in Week 2.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera did not criticize Newton, but said the Panthers should be better this far into the season. He said it's too late to talk about youth or inexperience.

"It's not an excuse anymore," Rivera said. "We're six weeks into this. It's time for us to start to play like we've been around.

"Now it's time to play and not make all these mistakes."

Michael Turner ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns for Atlanta (3-3), which attacked Carolina's vulnerable run defense.

Matt Ryan scored the go-ahead TD with 7 minutes remaining, and Corey Peters came up with a huge interception as the Panthers were driving while still trailing by only a touchdown.

After Matt Bryant's tying field goal and Ryan's 1-yard sneak, Newton made his biggest blunder of the day trying to set up a screen pass. Peters, a 305-pound defensive tackle, caught the rookie off guard by dropping into coverage. Newton flipped a short pass toward DeAngelo Williams, but Peters reached up with one hand to pick it off at the Carolina 40.

"I kind of fell into it," Peters said.

Newton said Peters "just backed up and it was an excellent play by him."

Rivera said Williams had three blockers if only he'd been able to catch the screen pass from Newton.

The interception set up Turner's 2-yard scoring run to push the lead to 14 points.

It was a decisive play which helped the Falcons outscore the Panthers 17-0 in the final period.

"To let that happen in the fourth quarter, in my opinion, it's hard to take," Rivera said.

The Falcons ran the ball 35 times, 13 more than they threw it. Ryan's only TD pass was to fullback Ovie Mughelli from the 1 in the second quarter.

Newton, who grew up just a few miles south of the Georgia Dome, wowed the crowd most of the day. He even celebrated his touchdown run with Deion Sanders' high-step dance in the end zone, marking a day when the retired Hall of Famer was honored by the Falcons at halftime.

But Newton was in no mood after the game to talk about dancing. He stared blankly when asked about his high-step tribute to Sanders.

"It's excitement," Newton said. "I don't know what you want me to say."

Carolina's first four defeats were by a total of 18 points, and this one was much closer than the two-touchdown margin.

"You just get sick of losing," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "The only point in the game where it felt bad was when it got out of hand at the end."

Jonathan Stewart scored Carolina's first touchdown on a 1-yard run, after Olindo Mare opened the scoring for the Panthers with a 42-yard field goal.

Carolina's top receiver, Steve Smith, was held to five receptions for 66 yards.

Newton was playing at the Georgia Dome for the first time since he accounted for six touchdowns in the Southeastern Conference championship game last December, leading Auburn to a 56-17 rout of South Carolina. The Tigers went on to claim the national title, then Newton headed to the pros as the top overall pick.

Now Newton is looking for a way to turn around the Panthers' season.

"You look back at the Panthers that played in the first quarter, it's not the Panthers that played in the fourth quarter," he said.

"Offensively and defensively, we just have to find a way to finish."

Notes: Turner has rushed for 100 yards 22 times in his Falcons career, tied for second in team history with William Andrews. Gerald Riggs leads with 25 games topping the century mark. ... The Falcons wore throwback uniforms, donning red helmets and black jerseys. In keeping with that theme, Mughelli celebrated his touchdown with the "Dirty Bird" dance, which became famous during the team's lone Super Bowl season in 1998. ... The Falcons didn't have any turnovers.

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