CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Cam Newton ran for 86 yards and a touchdown and the Carolina Panthers stormed back from an early 10-point deficit and then held on to beat the Atlanta Falcons 20-17 on Sunday in a key NFC South matchup.
The Panthers spotted the Falcons 10 points before Newton and the ground game got rolling. Carolina ran for 201 yards, including a career-high 66 and a touchdown from rookie Christian McCaffrey.
The win keeps the Panthers (6-3) a half-game behind the Saints in the NFC South after New Orleans beat Tampa Bay 30-10.
Devin Funchess had five receptions for 86 yards in his first game as Carolina’s No. 1 receiver after the team traded Kelvin Benjamin earlier in the week.
Matt Ryan, last year’s NFL MVP, threw for 313 yards and two touchdowns and had one costly first half interception for the defending NFC champion Falcons (4-4), who fell two games behind New Orleans at the midway point of their season.
The Panthers offense looked anemic for most of the first half with two fumbles by Jonathan Stewart leading to a 10-0 lead for the Falcons.
But Carolina scored two touchdowns in the final 2:35 of the first half to take a 14-10 lead into the locker room.
McCaffrey scored his first rushing touchdown of his career on a pitch from Newton to cut Atlanta’s lead to 10-7.
The Falcons looked to build on their lead before halftime, but Mike Adams intercepted Ryan and returned it 49 yards to set up Newton’s 9-yard touchdown run. The athletic Newton dived over the goal line and dunked the ball on cornerback Desmond Trufant for the score.
The Falcons cut the lead to 20-17 on a 19-yard touchdown reception with 3:25 remaining in the game, but Carolina’s defense kept Atlanta from scoring on its final drive.
JONES OVER 100: With six catches for 118 yards, Julio Jones became the first receiver to surpass 100 yards receiving against the Panthers this season.
But Jones will likely remember the one he didn’t catch. The perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver dropped a wide-open 39-yard touchdown with 8:12 left that would have cut Carolina’s lead to three.
NO RUNNING GAME: The Falcons have struggled in recent weeks with their running game, and Sunday was no exception. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were held to a combined 51 yards on 16 carries.
RECEIVER ROTATION: Rookie Curtis Samuel started for the Panthers as the No. 2 wide receiver opposite Funchess and had three catches for 23 yards. He ran once for 14 yards.
NEAL WITH THE STRIPS: Falcons safety Keanu Neal had a nice first quarter, forcing Stewart’s two fumbles and recovering one. It marked the first time Stewart has lost two fumbles and fumbled twice in the same game since coming into the NFL as a first-round draft pick.
Falcons: Freeman briefly left the game with 2 minutes remaining after taking a hard shot from safety Kurt Coleman but did return.
Panthers: Adams left in the fourth quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return.
Falcons: Host Cowboys next Sunday.
Panthers: Host Dolphins on Monday, Nov. 13.