CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers keep getting opportunities to recapture first place in the NFC South.
They just can't take advantage.
The latest misstep came Sunday when the Panthers battled back from 13 points down in the fourth quarter to take the lead before falling 19-17 to the Atlanta Falcons.
Matt Ryan threw for 268 yards and a touchdown, Matt Bryant added four field goals and the Falcons handed the Panthers their fifth straight loss.
Bryant's 44-yard field goal with 2:08 left put Atlanta ahead for good, and the Falcons withstood a late Carolina rally led by Cam Newton, who had two fourth-quarter touchdown passes.
But Carolina's Graham Gano missed a 46-yard field goal try with 1:27 remaining that would have given Carolina a lead and had a 63-yarder for the win blocked as time expired.
The Falcons (4-6) moved into a tie with New Orleans for the division lead after the Saints lost at home to Cincinnati 27-10. Had the Panthers won, they would have taken sole possession of first place.
"We keep getting opportunities and at some point, if it's important to us, we have to take advantage of it," center Ryan Kalil said.
Newton overcame two early interceptions to throw for 292 yards, but it wasn't enough.
It would be easy to say the Panthers are done, yet they still control their own destiny. If the Panthers win their final five games, they will clinch the division at 8-7-1.
"Well, somebody is trying to give us a gift," cornerback Josh Norman said of the Saints' loss. "The craziest part about it all is we're still in it."
Asked if the Panthers still deserve to be in the playoff hunt, Norman replied, "Does anybody in the NFC South deserve to be in it?"
Ryan, like everyone else, is surprised the Falcons are in first place.
"It's been a different year, for sure," Ryan said. "You play to be relevant in November and December. As quirky as this season's been, we're relevant."
The Panthers trailed 16-3 in the fourth quarter before a sluggish Newton started to heat up.
Rookie Kelvin Benjamin made a juggling 22-yard touchdown catch in the left corner of the end zone to give the Panthers some life. On the next possession, another rookie receiver, Philly Brown, got behind cornerback Robert McClain and caught a 47-yard score as he fell back into the end zone to briefly give the Panthers a 17-16 lead.
But Ryan moved the Falcons into field goal range, completing three passes for 29 yards to Harry Douglas to set up Bryant's go-ahead kick.
Newton still had something left, moving Carolina to the Atlanta 29 behind a series of short completions before Carolina got conservative. Gano hooked a 46-yarder wide left.
The Panthers forced a punt and moved into Atlanta territory behind a pair of hook-and-ladder plays to set up another chance for Gano. But his kick was low and blocked by rookie Ra'Shede Hagemen.
"I have to pull through and make the kick," Gano said. "That's what it comes down to. No excuses. I'm not going to sit here and explain why I missed the kick. My job is to put it through the uprights."
Roddy White's 4-yard catch to give the Falcons a 16-3 lead was Atlanta's only touchdown.
Things got heated after that.
Devin Hester was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after knocking a Carolina player off the pile at the end of a play, igniting a lot of pushing and shoving. Two snaps later, Carolina's Thomas Davis stripped Hester and Luke Kuechly recovered, starting another brief altercation with Jacquizz Rodgers taking down Kuechly, although no flag was thrown.
The day started off rough for Newton.
After he was sacked nine times in Carolina's 45-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, Falcons defensive Tyler Jackson raced in unblocked and delivered a helmet-to-helmet hit on the quarterback on Carolina's first play from scrimmage. Jackson was flagged for a 15-yard penalty, but Newton got up holding his chin and didn't seem right until late in the game.
Notes: Benjamin finished with 109 yards receiving, marking the second time this year he has gone over the century mark. ... Fozzy Whittaker gave the Panthers a lift in the backfield and on special teams with a 46-yard kickoff return.
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