Panthers set tone early, upset NFC-best Falcons

One week after losing to the lowly 1-10 Kansas City Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium, the Carolina Panthers earned some redemption against the NFC's best on Sunday.

Dictating the game from its onset, the Panthers (4-9) pulled ahead early and held off a late run against the division rival Atlanta Falcons to come away with a 30-20 victory at Bank of America Stadium.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera was pleased with his team's effort, despite many new, young faces playing in the line up.

"This is what we need to do in terms of completing games," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "This shows you exactly what we are capable of. That is the sad part because those are the same guys. In fact, some of them different guys because of injuries. Some of these young guys got some more opportunities and did some great things. We are capable of big things. This is a good group of guys that gave everything that they had. This is very gratifying. They played for each other, which is the most important thing. I couldn't be more proud of that group."

Sunday's game marked a first for the Panthers this season — winning the coin toss. The flip of the coin allowed Carolina to receive the ball to start the game.

Quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers offense immediately went to work to start the game.

Connecting on his first five passes for 48 yards, Newton capped the team's opening drive with a 25-yard touchdown strike to tight end Greg Olsen on the Panthers' 11th play from scrimmage.

Newton went on to complete his first eight passes in Sunday's game.

"We wanted to come out and set the tone very early," Newton said. "That was one of the goals coming in to the game offensively, defensively and on special teams. As you saw, we came out and did just that."

On the other hand, the Falcons (11-2) struggled offensively, only making two first downs and three rushing yards on their three first half drives.

“I think every week we talk about wanting to start fast, and we didn’t do a good job with that today," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. "I give Carolina credit. They came out and they played really well, and regardless of who you’re playing in this league, if you let somebody jump out to an early lead, it’s tough to overcome that.”

Falcons coach Mike Smith was also caught off guard by the Falcons flat start.

"I thought we had a very good week of practice," Smith said. "On Tuesday, we came back on Falcons-on-Falcons day and then started our game planning on Wednesday. We had very good practices. They played well. We didn’t play up to our standards. Again, my hat’s off to them. It’s a good football team. We had a good battle over there in Atlanta. They were definitely better today."

Three more Panther drives in the first half led to points — all from the leg of Graham Gano.

The new Carolina kicker connected on a trio of field goals from 24, 41 and 31 yards, respectively, to extend his team's lead to 16-0 by halftime.

Rivera said his team was extremely motivated after losing a 30-28 heartbreaker to the Falcons on Sept. 30 at the Georgia Dome.

"All of our division games are circled to be honest with you," he said. "This one, there was a little bit more to it obviously because of the way we lost."

After another three-and-out for the Falcons to start the second half, the Panthers quickly padded their lead when Newton sprung 72 yards on a run and plunged into the end zone after a few key blocks from wide receiver Steve Smith.

Newton was determined to score on the play.

"The only thing I kept thinking was that I couldn't get caught," he said. "As I was running, Smitty helped me out a lot blocking those guys, and I got in the end zone."

Rivera was impressed with Newton's performance.

"It was spectacular," he said. "Atlanta is a big game for him personally because it is his hometown team. He wants to play well. That is why the loss in Atlanta was so tough on him. He took it very personal. I think it carried over for a little bit with him. With the way he played and things he did, that shows what he potentially is going to become. We've just got to keep working him, and he has to continue to grow as a football player."

Down 23-0, the Falcons finally started to get into a rhythm by scoring on back-to-back drives.

Matt Ryan connected with Roddy White on a four-yard TD pass in the third quarter to open Atlanta's scoring.

Ryan, who finished with 342 passing yards in Sunday's divisional contest, later found Julio Jones on an 11-yard touchdown reception to cut the deficit to 23-13 after a missed two-point conversion.

With Atlanta attempting its third-straight score on its next drive, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis made sure that wouldn't happen — lunging in front of a pass from Ryan to White to make an interception at the Atlanta 40-yard line.

The Panthers offense took the ensuing possession and closed out the victory.

Newton found running back DeAngelo Williams on a 53-yard screen pass — helping to give the Panthers their first double-digit victory since beating Tampa Bay 48-16 last December.

An Atlanta, Ga. native, Newton finished the game completing 23-of-35 passes for 287 yards. He also tallied 116 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing).

An emotional Rivera in the postgame press conference was overwhelmed at the play of Davis in spite of the recent obstacles he has tried to overcome.

"I gave the game ball today to Thomas Davis," Rivera said. "I told the team that last spring Thomas and I sat down with our owner. We didn't know exactly where Thomas was. Thomas looked me in the eye and told me he would come back. I said 'I'll give you the opportunity.' Thomas really wanted to make it through both Atlanta games. As a head coach, when you have a guy that looks you in the eye coming off of three knee surgeries and he makes you believe in him, that is really what it is all about."

The Panthers are on the road for their next game this Sunday against Rivera's former team — the San Diego Chargers (5-8).