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Atlanta Falcons end Carolina Panthers' perfect season

By
David Purdum, The Sports Xchange
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11). UPI/David Tulis
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11). UPI/David Tulis | License Photo

ATLANTA -- With one mighty leap, Julio Jones ended the Carolina Panthers' perfect season.

Atlanta's superstar receiver discarded one Carolina defender, jumped over another and snagged a 70-yard pass from quarterback Matt Ryan for the go-ahead score late in the third quarter in the Falcons' 20-13 win over the Panthers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

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The Falcons handed the Panthers (14-1) their first loss and, for now, kept them from clinching home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. Atlanta (8-7) briefly kept its playoff hopes alive before a win by Minnesota Vikings later in the day eliminated the Falcons from postseason contention.

Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had two chances to lead comeback drives late in the fourth quarter but couldn't get the Panthers in the end zone. On Carolina's final possession, Falcons rookie linebacker Vic Beasley stripped the ball from Newton and defensive end Malliciah Goodman recovered the fumble to seal the win.

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"They may have taken us lightly," Beasley said. "But we didn't take them lightly."

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One week after battling New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. physically and verbally, Carolina Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman struggled to keep up with Jones. But Norman wasn't matched up on Jones on the biggest play of the game.

On third and 14, Ryan scrambled to his left and heaved a deep ball to Jones, who was covered by corner Charles Tillman and linebacker Luke Kuechly. Neither could climb with Jones, who leaped up, made the catch and strolled into the end zone for the winning touchdown.

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"Just how we drew it up," joked Falcons coach Dan Quinn.

Jones finished with 178 yards on nine receptions and broke his own Falcons record for receiving yards in a season.

Ryan completed 23 of 30 passes for 306 yards. His touchdown pass to Jones was the 200th of his career.

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Leading 14-10, the Falcons were driving inside Panthers' territory, before Ryan mishandled a shotgun snap that was recovered by Norman and returned to the Falcons' 36-yard line. Carolina had to settle for a 47-yard field goal from Graham Gano, though, cutting the Atlanta lead to 14-13 with 7:59 to play.

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Ryan redeemed himself on the following drive, marching the Falcons back down the field and setting up a 36-yard field goal by Shayne Graham that put the Falcons up 17-13 with 2:23 to play. Graham tacked on a 54-yard field goal with 1:30 to play.

The Falcons' win comes just two weeks after a 38-0 loss to the Panthers in Carolina.

"This was a measuring-stick game, a complete team win," Quinn said.

Both teams mounted long scoring drives on their opening possessions. Newton capped an 11-play, 80-yard drive with an eight-yard touchdown run and then celebrated with fans in the stands and danced with teammates. It would be Newton's last end-zone dance of the day.

The Panthers, who averaged 38.8 points in their last five games, were held to a season-low 13 points.

"We didn't coach to our abilities or play to our abilities," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "But give them credit. This is part of the journey. We have to refocus. But we've accomplished a lot. Let's not lose sight of that."

Atlanta answered on its ensuing drive, with running back Devonta Freeman tying the score on a 4-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. Freeman finished with 73 yards rushing.

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Newton finished 17 of 30 for 142 yards passing. He also rushed seven times for 46 yards.

"We didn't match the Falcons' intensity at times," Newton said. "They made more plays. That's unacceptable. Come back and get ready for a good week of practice. No magic words need to be said."

The Panthers will look to secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs next week at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Falcons finish up at home against the New Orleans Saints.

NOTES: Carolina RB Fozzy Whittaker suffered a right ankle injury in the fourth quarter and did not return. ... A league-high 10 Carolina Panthers were selected to the Pro Bowl: QB Cam Newton, RB Jonathan Stewart, FB Mike Tolbert,OG Trai Turner, C Ryan Kalil, TE Greg Olsen, LBs Jamie Collins and Luke Kuechly and CB Josh Norman. ... Two Falcons -- RB DeVonta Freeman and WR Julio Jones -- were selected. ... Newton played his high school football at Westlake High School, located approximately 15 miles from the Georgia Dome. ... Carolina WR Ted Ginn Jr. suffered a knee injury in the first half and left the game. ... Atlanta wide receiver and special teams standout Eric Weems was taken to the locker room in the second quarter to be evaluated for a concussion. He did not return. ... Atlanta LB Paul Soliai suffered a calf injury early in the first quarter and did not return. ... Tickets distributed were 70,981.

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