CHARLOTTE, N.C. — This time, the Atlanta Falcons finished.
Matt Ryan passed for 281 yards and ran for a touchdown, and Younghoe Koo made four field goals as the Atlanta Falcons held on to beat the Carolina Panthers 25-17 on Thursday night behind a strong defensive performance to avoid a series season sweep.
The Falcons (2-6) have had a penchant for squandering leads, coming into the game 1-3 this season when leading entering the fourth quarter. Carolina was driving late, but Atlanta stopped the rally when Blidi Wreh-Wilson intercepted Teddy Bridgewater near the Falcons' 10-yard line with 1:04 remaining.
"That's what we've been talking about, ending games with either sacks or interceptions, and the guys went out today and did exactly that," Falcons interim head coach Raheem Morris said. "The ball went up in the air and Blidi came down with it, and it was awesome."
Atlanta running back Todd Gurley grinded out 46 yards and a touchdown, Julio Jones added 137 receiving yards against a banged-up Panthers secondary and the defense limited the Panthers to 2-of-10 on third-down conversions as the Falcons improved to 2-1 since Dan Quinn was fired as head coach.
Panthers coach Matt Rhule said it felt like Bridgewater was constantly under duress in this NFC South matchup.
"We had a hard time blocking their front," Rhule said. "We weren't able to get our receivers involved. We were 2-of-10 on third downs, and we can't live like that."
Bridgewater tried to spur Carolina to a comeback in front of a sparse crowd — only 5,240 due to COVID-19 restrictions — after Koo missed an extra-point attempt that would have made it a two-possession game.
Bridgewater, who was knocked out of the game for two possessions with a neck injury after a late hit by Charles Harris — one that resulted in the Atlanta defensive end being ejected — took over with the Panthers down by eight points with less than three minutes to play. He completed a 35-yard strike to D.J. Moore on third-and-18 to move the Panthers into Atlanta territory, but his final pass was easily picked off.
Bridgewater was limited to 176 passing yards as the Panthers (3-5) lost their third straight game without Christian McCaffrey, with the versatile running back still out because of injury.
"I don't think any of us played real well tonight," Rhule said.
Said Bridgewater: "Tough loss, and we have to find ways to finish the game. That can't be the common thing around here — coming up short."
The Falcons avenged a 23-16 loss to Carolina 18 days ago in which Bridgewater threw for 313 yards and two scores and Mike Davis piled up 149 rushing yards. Davis was held to 77 yards this time on a wet field where players routinely swapped cleats to adapt to the changing conditions.
Jones didn't play in the first meeting, though, and he was a huge difference in this one, setting the tone by hauling in catches two catches for 52 yards on the game's first two plays. Playing against a secondary already without two starters — Carolina lost another when Donte Jackson reinjured his toe in the first half — proved to be easy pickings for Jones.
"It's fun, no question about it," Ryan said of having Jones in the lineup. "The way we started the game is when we're at our best, play-action pass. I hope it's the start of something. I really feel like, although we're 2-6, we've been in some tight ones."
The Panthers had opened a 14-6 lead in the second quarter when Bridgewater found Curtis Samuel for a 29-yard touchdown pass on a flea-flicker. It was Samuel's second touchdown of the half, having scored earlier on a 12-yard run up the middle to give Carolina its first lead.
The 24-year-old Samuel has three career games with a touchdown rushing and receiving, which trails only Jerry Rice (five) among wide receivers in the Super Bowl era.
Ryan said he wasn't sure if he would get to the end zone on a 13-yard touchdown run in the first half but knew he had a chance when cornerback Troy Pride slipped while trying to chase him down.
"Just fast enough," Ryan said. "I feel like I've always been that way throughout my career — just fast enough to make them pay sometimes on third downs. It was a big score for us there. We really needed it."
When asked about the reactions of his teammates, Ryan said, "I can't tell if they're laughing at me or just having a good time and excited for it."
Atlanta wide receiver Calvin Ridley left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury after making a catch in the red zone and did not return. Morris offered no update on his status after the game.
Falcons cornerback Kendall Sheffield left the game early with a head injury but returned.