ATLANTA — Carolina’s bid for an undefeated season ended Sunday when Julio Jones’ dramatic 70-yard touchdown reception powered the Atlanta Falcons to a 20-13 victory over Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Carolina (14-1) got the ball with 90 seconds left and no timeouts remaining. Newton completed a 19-yard pass to Corey Brown on first down but fumbled when stripped by Vic Beasley Jr. on the following play. Adrian Clayborn recovered for the Falcons, wrapping up the win.
Matt Ryan threw for 306 yards and one touchdown for the Falcons (8-7), and Devonta Freeman ran for 73 yards with a touchdown.
Newton threw for 142 yards and ran for 46 yards, including an 8-yard scoring run to cap the Panthers’ opening drive.
Carolina needed a win, or a loss or tie by Arizona against Green Bay, to clinch home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs.
Jones got the best of his matchup with Carolina cornerback Josh Norman. Jones had nine catches for 178 yards. The touchdown catch in the third quarter compares with the best of Jones’ career highlights.
Jones reached above linebacker Luke Kuechly for the catch as Panthers safety Kurt Coleman slipped, leaving a clear path for Jones to the end zone. The play put Atlanta ahead to stay at 14-10.
Atlanta’s Shayne Graham kicked field goals of 37 and 54 yards in the final 2:30. The last field goal pushed Atlanta’s lead to seven points with 1:30 remaining.
Carolina trailed 14-10 in the fourth quarter when Ryan mishandled a shotgun snap from the Panthers 37. Ryan couldn’t pick up the loose ball. Norman made the recovery and returned it 12 yards. Graham Gano’s 47-yard field goal cut Atlanta’s lead to 14-13.
There was an expectation officials would call the game closely following complaints that play was allowed to get out of hand in the Panthers’ game against the Giants last week. Postgame fallout included a one-game suspension for New York wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Norman being fined $26,044 for his role in several incidents.
Carolina’s defense drew two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, including one on cornerback Charles Tillman that helped keep the Falcons’ marathon touchdown drive alive on their first possession.
The Falcons were stopped on a third-down incomplete pass before Tillman became entangled with Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White. Tillman drew the flag to keep Atlanta’s offense on the field. Ryan completed third-down passes to White and Jacob Tamme and had a key 7-yard run on another third-down play.
Freeman scored from the 4 on the first play of the second quarter for a 7-7 tie. The 16-play, 80-yard drive lasted more than 9 minutes.
Kuechly also drew a personal foul penalty for a horse-collar tackle on Jones on Atlanta’s second possession.
With the game still tied, Graham missed a 43-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter. The kick was low and Graham appeared to slip.
Gano gave Carolina a 10-7 lead with a 33-yard field goal with 5:26 left in the third.