ATLANTA — This one's going to sting for a while.
For Panthers safety Haruki Nakamura. For coach Ron Rivera. For the entire organization and its fan base.
The Panthers had Atlanta in the worst possible field position at its 1, down a point, with 59 seconds left and found a way to lose.
Nakamura let the Falcons out of their hole with his fourth major misplay of the day, setting up Matt Bryants 40-yard field goal with five seconds remaining that gave Atlanta a 30-28 victory.
The Panthers (1-3) lost their fifth consecutive game in Atlanta, dating to 2007. The Falcons improved to 4-0 for only the third time in franchise history.
Rivera and the Panthers' players refused to pin the loss on Nakamura, the former backup to Ed Reed in Baltimore who signed with Carolina in the offseason for the chance to start.
They didn't have to. Nakamura took responsibility himself.
I basically cost us the football game. Its hard on me because Im supposed to come in and be a difference-maker, Nakamura said. And when you cost the team a football game, especially for how hard we played, its hard to deal with. This team deserves better. Especially giving up stupid plays like I did. Unfortunately, I cost us the game.
After punter Brad Nortman pinned the Falcons inches from their goal line, Matt Ryan threw deep down the left sideline for wideout Roddy White. The Panthers were in Cover 2, with two deep safeties whose job was not to let a receiver get behind them.
Nakamura did. White's 59-yard catch put the Falcons at the Carolina 40. A pass interference penalty on cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and a couple of sideline completions by Ryan brought out Bryant, whose kick split the uprights.
We're not going to candy-coat this. This was an opportunity for us and we failed to capitalize on that opportunity, Rivera said. All we gotta do is keep the ball in front of us, not let anybody behind us and we screwed that up. It's huge. We can't accept that.
Nakamura, best known as a special teams player during his four seasons with the Ravens, seemed to be involved in every big play. He intercepted Ryan at the goal line in the first quarter and broke up a pass in the end zone later in the first half.
But he gave up a pair of first-half touchdown catches to White and whiffed as the last line of defense on running back Michael Turner's 60-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter.
This team played so hard. Offense played well. Defense, we played well. You take three or four plays, and the sad thing is I had something to do with those three or four plays, Nakamura said. Like I said, this team deserves better. All I can do is come back and work hard and learn from it.
Rivera mentioned Nakamura's interception and pass breakup when asked about Nakamura's rough day.
Unfortunately, he gets out-jumped in a play that stood out, Rivera said. This game had about 150 plays. There weren't 149 good plays and one bad. So it doesn't fall on one play. If we need to, put it on my shoulders. I'm the head coach.
The Panthers could have salted the game away on offense. But on third-and-2 with 1:51 left, quarterback Cam Newton fumbled while diving for first-down yardage.
Fullback Mike Tolbert recovered, and officials initially marked it as fourth-and-inches. A replay review moved the spot back a yard, and Rivera elected to punt after the Panthers unsuccessfully tried to get Atlanta to jump offside.
Rivera said he was considering going for the first down until the ball was re-spotted.
We were talking about it. Once it was moved back, we went into trying the hard (snap) count to give us 5 more yards, Rivera said. I couldn't have asked for a better situation, with about 1:20 to go in the ballgame and down on the 1-yard line. You would like to believe we could keep the ball in front of us.
The loss overshadowed a pair of terrific performances by Newton and Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who set a team record with 3.5 sacks playing in his home state.
Newton bounced back from his three-interception game in a 36-7 loss to the Giants on Sept. 20 by completing 15 of 24 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns. Newton, who was picked off three times by the Falcons in his Atlanta hometown, was the Panthers' leading rusher with a career-high 86 yards on nine carries.
Johnson was part of a pass rush that sacked Ryan seven times, the most in Panthers' history and the most allowed by Atlanta in Ryan's five seasons.
But Ryan had plenty of time to throw the dagger to White in the final minute. The Falcons sent two receivers deep on the play, and Ryan went to White.
The coverage they had was just one-on-one on the safety and I just threw it down there high and far and to the spot that we talk about in practice when we work on that play, Ryan said. Roddy went up and made a great catch. He just made a great play.
Johnson was rushing on the play and never saw White's catch.
I just heard the crowd. When I got up, I was in disbelief. I couldn't really believe it happened, Johnson said. We knew they were going to go deep. That's one of the plays that we're going to have to learn from. It's either going to make us or going to break us. We're going to see down the road.
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