Returning to the formula that worked so well the last three years, the Falcons kept handing the ball to Michael Turner and finally looked like the team that’s supposed to be a contender.
“We need to get our identity back, and that starts with running the football,” said Turner, who rumbled for 139 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s 31-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers. “We want to bury teams.”
The Falcons (3-3) were clearly intent on re-establishing their trademark offensive style against a vulnerable defense. Turner had a season-high 27 carries, and Atlanta ran the ball 35 times in all — 13 more than they threw it.
“We’d like to be able to do that every week,” said Matt Ryan, who passed for just 163 yards — and didn’t mind a bit.
For Cam Newton and the rebuilding Panthers, it was another tough loss.
Carolina (1-5) has been in every game, but keeps coming up short at the end. Newton had three interceptions in his homecoming to Atlanta, including a crucial pick by defensive tackle Corey Peters that set up the Falcons’ clinching TD during a 17-point fourth quarter.
“At some point, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what can you do to make it better,” Newton said. “It’s not the time that you point the fingers and say, ‘It’s his fault.’ It’s time that we as a team take ownership of ourselves.”
Newton, who grew up just a few miles south of the Georgia Dome, wowed the crowd much of the day. He threw for 237 yards and took off on a 14-yard touchdown run that put the Panthers ahead 17-14 heading to the final quarter. He even celebrated with Deion Sanders’ high-step dance in the end zone, marking a day when the retired Hall of Famer was honored by the Falcons at halftime.
Then, things turned sour.
After Matt Bryant’s tying field goal, Ryan scored on a 1-yard sneak to put the Falcons ahead 24-17. Newton got the ball back, only to make his biggest blunder of the day trying to set up a screen pass.
Corey Peters, a 305-pound defensive tackle, caught the rookie quarterback off guard by dropping into coverage. When Newton flipped a short pass, Peters reached up with one hand to pick it off at the Carolina 40.
The Falcons offense did the rest, driving for the clinching touchdown. Turner barreled into the end zone from 2 yards out with 1:56 left to hand the Panthers another excruciating loss. Their first four defeats were by a total of 18 points, and this one was much closer than the two-touchdown margin.
“Not good. Not acceptable,” first-year coach Ron Rivera said. “We’re six weeks into this. It’s time for us to start to play like we’ve been around.”
Turner also scored on a 1-yard run at the end of the first quarter and broke a streak of three straight games without reaching 100 yards. Ryan, who was averaging more than 39 passes a game, completed 14 of 22 in more of a complementary role.
“It started with the O-line,” Turner said. “They came out with a nasty attitude today, that they were going to move the line of scrimmage. I love to see green, man. You give me some space, I’ll do what I do.”
Newton finished 21 of 35, including a deflected pass that was picked off in the end zone with less than a minute left in the first half. His third interception didn’t really matter, coming on a desperation pass into the end zone on the final play of the game.
The rookie also led the Panthers in rushing with 50 yards on six carries.
Ryan threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Ovie Mughelli, giving the Falcons a 14-10 lead at halftime. Jonathan Stewart scored Carolina’s first touchdown on a 1-yard run, after Olindo Mare opened the scoring for the Panthers with a 42-yard field goal.
The Panthers didn’t have to punt until late in the third quarter, but the Atlanta defense took control in the final period. Carolina’s final four possessions ended with two punts and a pair of interceptions.
Newton was playing at the Georgia Dome for the first time since he accounted for six touchdowns in the Southeastern Conference championship game last December, leading Auburn to a 56-17 rout of South Carolina. The Tigers went on to claim the national title, and Newton headed to the pros as the top overall pick and a Heisman Trophy winner.
The wins have been a lot harder to come by in the NFL.
“We had an excellent game plan going into the week, but the coaches can only do so much,” Newton said. “It’s time for the players to start stepping up and making plays.”
Notes: Turner has rushed for 100 yards 22 times in his Falcons career, tied for second in team history with William Andrews. Gerald Riggs leads with 25 games topping the century mark. … The Falcons wore throwback uniforms, donning red helmets and black jerseys. In keeping with that theme, Mughelli celebrated his touchdown with the “Dirty Bird” dance, which became famous during the team’s lone Super Bowl season in 1998. … Atlanta did a good job shutting down Carolina’s top receiver, Steve Smith, who came into the game averaging nearly 23 yards per catch and more than 121 yards per game. He was held to five receptions for 66 yards.