ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons never trailed in their first three games.
Now they know they can play from behind, too.
Rallying in the final minute from their 1-yard line, the unbeaten Falcons scrambled into position for Matt Bryant’s 40-yard field goal with 5 seconds remaining and pulled out a 30-28 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Atlanta (4-0) is off to its best start since 2004, when the Falcons reached the NFC championship game.
This team has even higher goals.
“We’re not good enough to play every game from ahead,” coach Mike Smith said. “This showed the mettle of the guys in that locker room. They showed a lot of resiliency.”
No one was more resilient than Matt Ryan. Shaking off a career-high seven sacks, the Falcons’ quarterback dropped back into his own end zone and threw up a pass that Roddy White snatched away between two defenders for a 59-yard gain. After a pass interference and a couple of short completions, Bryant won it with a kick right down the middle.
“We’re right where we need to be in terms of our record,” said Ryan, who threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns despite taking an awful beating. “In terms of our play, we’ve got a lot of improving to do.”
After squandering a 24-14 lead in the second half, the Falcons needed a crucial fumble by Cam Newton to even have a chance — and they still faced long odds when the Panthers downed a punt at the Atlanta 1 with 1:09 remaining.
Ryan had no timeouts and surely some doubt about how much time his beleaguered offensive line would give him. But he dropped back about as far as he could, threw it about as far as he could, and relied on White to go up and make the catch.
He did, the biggest catch of all on a day when he had eight for 169 yards.
“Matt told me he was going to throw it up there. Just make a play,” said White, who also had a pair of touchdowns. “Not for one second did we think we were going to lose the game.”
Newton threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score. But he let the ball slip away when it looked as though he had clinched the victory for the Panthers (1-3).
“You have to protect the football,” Newton said. “That was a key focus going into this game, and I fumbled. There’s a lot of guys that are trusting the ballcarrier, and I was the ballcarrier that particular play to get the job done. And I dropped the ball.”
On third-and-2 at the Atlanta 46, Newton took the snap and bulled his way over the left side, his body surging across the spot needed for the first down. On the sideline, several of the Panthers broke into a celebration.
But John Abraham knocked it loose, the ball squirting backward. Fullback Mike Tolbert covered it for Carolina at the 45 — 1 yard shy of a first down. After attempting unsuccessfully to draw the Falcons offside, the Panthers punted it away.
The Falcons took advantage.
Once they got Bryant in position, it was over.
The 37-year-old kicker made all three of his attempts against the Panthers, improving to 9 for 9 on the season. Since joining the Falcons during the 2009 season, he has missed only eight of 79 tries.
“Clutch,” is how Ryan described him.
Charles Johnson spent so much time in the Atlanta backfield, he should’ve worn a Falcons jersey. He was credited with 3½ sacks and hit Ryan five other times after he got the ball away.
If only Johnson could’ve gotten to him one more time — on that long pass to White.
“I just heard the crowd, and when I got up I was kind of in disbelief,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t believe what had happened. You know they were going to go deep, but that’s one of the plays that we’re going to have to learn from. I think it’s either going to make us or it’s going to break us. We’ll see down the road.”
Newton’s fumble ruined what had been a stellar performance. He threw for 215 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown to Greg Olsen early in the game, then a 36-yard scoring play to Kealoha Pilares that put the Panthers ahead 28-24 with 7:55 remaining.
Newton also ran for 86 yards on nine carries, bulling his way into the end zone from 4 yards out late in the third quarter.
The Panthers played much better than they did in their last outing, a 36-7 home loss to the New York Giants, but it wasn’t enough to prevent them from sliding a daunting three games behind Atlanta in the NFC South.
“I want to apologize to my teammates and the fans that were watching out there,” Newton said. “Everybody was doing their job. I clearly had the first down, but I’ve just got to hold onto the football.”
NOTES: Michael Turner scored on a 60-yard screen pass, the first touchdown reception of his nine-year career. … Carolina S Haruki Nakamura had an early interception, but it was largely a day to forget. He was beaten on both of White’s touchdown receptions, missed a tackle on Turner’s scoring play and had the ball snatched away by White on the long pass that set up the winning field goal. … The Falcons travel to Washington next Sunday, while Carolina hosts Seattle.
— Associated Press