Panthers fall apart in closing minutes

By George Henry

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Sept. 30 2012 5:59 p.m. MDT

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) reacts on the sidelines during the second half of their 30-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2012, in Atlanta.

Rich Addicks, Associated Press

ATLANTA — Nobody felt worse in Carolina's locker room than free safety Haruki Nakamura.

After a 30-28 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Nakamura took the blame for everything that went wrong, at least on defense.

"I mean I basically cost us the football game," he said. "It's hard on me because I'm supposed to come in and be a difference maker. When you cost the team a football game — particularly with how hard we played — man, it's just hard to deal with."

The Panthers (1-3) took a four-point lead into the final 2 minutes, but then unraveled to lose for the second straight week.

There were some bright spots before Carolina crashed:

— Quarterback Cam Newton, who passed for 215 yards, ran nine times for 86, helped account for three touchdowns and didn't throw an interception one week after getting picked off three times;

— Defensive end Charles Johnson had a career-high 3 1/2 sacks. Carolina's seven sacks of Matt Ryan were single-game high for the Atlanta quarterback;

— Nakamura picked off Ryan in the end zone to ruin Atlanta's second drive;

— And the Panthers' punt coverage unit pinned the Falcons back to their 1-yard line with 59 seconds remaining.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera, however, wasn't interested in discussing what went well.

"We are not going to candy coat this," Rivera said. "This was an opportunity for us, and we failed to capitalize on that opportunity."

A confluence of bad timing and poor execution led the Panthers to a fifth straight loss in their series with Atlanta (4-0).

With 1:51 remaining, Newton ran 2 yards to convert a third down, but fumbled on a hit by Atlanta defensive end John Abraham. Carolina held the possession, thanks to fullback Mike Tolbert's fumble recovery, but the ball was spotted 1 yard shy of a first down.

Following Brad Nortman's 49-yard punt, Ryan threw from his end zone to Roddy White for a 59-yard gain that set up the winning field goal.

It marked the fourth time that Nakamura was beaten on the afternoon.

"I should've intercepted that ball," he said. "I had the ball in my hands, and he just took it from me. It's nobody else's fault, but mine. I accept full responsibility for it."

White also beat Nakamura on a 49-yard touchdown catch that he pulled down in the end zone late in the first quarter. Nakamura also missed an assignment on White's 14-yard TD catch in the second.

Nakamura, who signed with the Panthers in March after backing up star safety Ed Reed during the past four years in Baltimore, missed an attempted tackle at midfield when Atlanta running back Michael Turner was breaking off a 60-yard touchdown catch.

"This team deserves better, especially giving up stupid plays like I did," Nakamura said. "Unfortunately it cost us the game."

Newton was so disappointed in himself that he took nearly an hour to dress and speak to reporters.

After the game, the 2011 NFL offensive rookie of the year sat in front of his locker staring at the floor before team representatives finally were able to get him moving toward the shower.

"My teammates did an unbelievable job, first off trusting me with the football and putting me in that position to go for it and try to get the first down," Newton said. "Everybody knows the game does not come down to one play, but one play can open opportunities to win the football game."

The Panthers' defense had no answer for White, who caught eight passes for 169 yards, or Turner, who ran 13 times for 103 yards. It marked the sixth time in nine games against Carolina that Turner has rushed for 100 yards or more.

"I've been around some last-minute thrillers," Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said. "But this one is going to be hard to wrap your mind around and realize what happened and try to move forward. It's going to be a tough one."

Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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