1. Jackson’s third-down catch
The score: Scoreless, 13:49 left in first quarter.
The situation: Falcons’ ball, third-and-2 at the Atlanta 28.
The play: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan looked right for wide receiver Harry Douglas, prompting linebacker Thomas Davis to break in that direction. Ryan then hit running back Steven Jackson in the spot vacated by Davis, and Jackson ran 17 yards to the Falcons’ 45.
Why it mattered: With a stop on third down, the Panthers would have forced a three-and-out on the Falcons’ opening drive. Instead, the conversion kept the drive alive and the Falcons cashed in with a 9-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to RB Jason Snelling. It was the first opening-drive touchdown allowed by the Panthers this season.
2. Tolbert’s rumble
The score: Falcons 10, Panthers 7, 32 seconds left in second quarter.
The situation: Panthers’ ball, second-and-10 at the Atlanta 20.
The play: Cam Newton handed off to fullback Mike Tolbert, who found a big hole up the middle and lowered his shoulder into safety William Moore and kept running. Tolbert carried three defenders for a 17-yard gain to the 3.
Why it mattered: Tolbert’s run got the Panthers thinking about a touchdown at the end of the half instead of a field goal. On the next play, Newton faked to Tolbert and tossed a 3-yard touchdown to Ted Ginn Jr., who came open on a rub route to give the Panthers the halftime lead at 14-10.
3. Newton’s scramble and flop
The score: Falcons 17, Panthers 14, 8:21 left in third quarter.
The situation: Panthers’ ball, third-and-2 at the Carolina 32.
The play: With no receivers open, Newton took off running around the left end. He gained 10 yards before being pushed out of bounds, then went down after linebacker Paul Worrilow touched him. It was a good acting job by Newton, who got an extra 15 yards on the personal foul on Worrilow.
Why it mattered: The Falcons had just reclaimed the lead on 39-yard touchdown catch by Roddy White. On the ensuing drive, the Panthers were in danger of going three-and-out before Newton’s scramble and Worrilow’s penalty. They ended up driving for a go-ahead score – a 7-yard pass from Newton to tight end Greg Olsen – and a 21-17 lead.
4. Jackson’s fourth-down pick-up
The score: Panthers 21, Falcons 17, 9:18 left in fourth quarter.
The situation: Falcons’ ball, fourth-and-1 at the Carolina 24.
The play: Facing a fourth down in Panthers territory, Ryan handed off to Jackson, who barreled through a hole off left tackle for a 5-yard gain to the Panthers’ 19.
Why it mattered: Jackson’s run extended the Falcons’ drive, which lasted 17 plays, covered 71 yards and took 8 minutes, 33 seconds before Matt Bryant’s 37-yard field goal cut the Panthers’ lead to 21-20.
5. Hawley’s errant snap
The score: Panthers 21, Falcons 20, 31 seconds left in fourth quarter.
The situation: Falcons’ ball, first-and-10 at the Atlanta 43.
The play: After four consecutive completions, Ryan was yelling out the Panthers’ coverage before the shotgun snap. With Panthers fans making a lot of noise, center Joe Hawley thought Ryan had called for the snap, and he sent it 16 yards past Ryan before Snelling fell on it at the Atlanta 27.
Why it mattered: With the Falcons out of timeouts, the miscommunication – which the Falcons blamed on the noise from Panthers fans – ended Atlanta’s comeback hopes. Two plays later, the Panthers were celebrating their first division title in five years.