CHARLOTTE, N.C. – If only the NFL would shorten its games to 45 minutes instead of 60, the Carolina Panthers might just be in playoff contention.
Instead, they're 4-9.
In what has been an all too familiar refrain this season, the Panthers blew yet another fourth quarter lead Sunday in a 31-23 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers led by 16 at halftime and by 6 entering the final quarter, but their offense bogged down, and they were outscored 24-0 in the second half at home.
It's the sixth time this season the Panthers have led or been tied in the fourth quarter only to lose.
"We still have a long ways to go as a football team," coach Ron Rivera said. "We are a young team that has to understand you have to keep going and put the foot down on the accelerator, which we didn't do."
Cam Newton started strong, completing 9 of 14 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns in the first half as the Panthers built a 23-7 lead. But Newton was intercepted twice in the second half, one of them on a poor decision when he tried to shovel the ball ahead with his non-throwing left hand as he was falling to the ground.
"Both interceptions were my fault and you can't do that," Newton said. "If you expect to win in this league, you have to protect the football. I did a poor job in doing that today. Without those two picks, the team would have had a better chance of winning today."
Matt Ryan seems to have Carolina's number. He's won six of his last seven starts against the Panthers.
Ryan threw for 320 yards, and his four TD passes matched a career high. He threw two of them in the fourth quarter to rookie Julio Jones to lead the Falcons (8-5) back.
The first time the teams met, the Falcons trailed by three points in the fourth quarter but rallied for a 31-17 win Oct. 16.
Jones, who finished with 104 yards receiving, was quiet for most of the game but caught a 17-yard touchdown pass to give the Falcons a 24-23 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Despite their struggles in the second half, the Panthers looked poised to regain the lead, but Newton couldn't hook up with Greg Olsen in the back of the end zone, and the Panthers had to settle for a 36-yard field goal attempt.
Olindo Mare, just as he'd done against Minnesota, pushed a potential go-ahead kick wide left.
"You can't do that; you really can't," Rivera said.
Rivera said he planned to sit down with Mare — who was given a four-year, $12 million contract this offseason — to talk about what's wrong.
"It's the second one he's hooked left, pretty much from almost the same area (on the field)," Rivera said.
The Falcons seized the momentum.
Two plays later, on second-and-11, Jones caught a pass over the middle, broke a tackle and raced 75 yards to the end zone.
Ryan was particularly sharp in the second half, throwing for 232 yards and three scores.
Looking to increase the tempo, the Falcons went to a no-huddle offense quite a bit in the second half and tried to take advantage of a matchup with reserve cornerback Darius Butler on Jones
Both of Jones' touchdown catches came against Butler.
"You know, they were coming at me a few times with Julio," Butler said. "They like that matchup. I made some plays early, and he made some big plays late. You've got to hold up. That's the name of the game. You got to finish it out."
The Panthers were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
A glum Newton called his decision to try a shovel pass to Jonathan Stewart as he was being tackled "terrible."
"I tried to get the ball to Stew and tried to avoid the sack," he said. "I should have just ate the ball and taken the sack."
Earlier this week, Rivera said this was a statement game for his young team. The statement was that their youth still shows.
And the Falcons took advantage.
NOTES: The Falcons are 21-0 when Ryan has a quarterback rating of 100 or more. ... Carolina's Steve Smith became the 35th player in NFL history to reach 10,000 yards receiving for his career on a 16-yard catch in the second quarter. ... Travelle Wharton moved from left guard to left tackle for the Panthers to replace Jordan Gross, who sat out with a right ankle injury. Mackenzy Bernadeau started at Wharton's regular spot at left guard. ... With starting defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain going on injured reserve earlier this week, Frank Kearse and Andre Neblett got the start for the Panthers.