With one mighty leap, Julio Jones ended the Carolina Panthers’ perfect season. Atlanta’s star receiver discarded one Carolina defender, jumped over another and snagged a 70-yard pass from quarterback Matt Ryan for the go-ahead score late in the third quarter in the Falcons’ 20-13 win over the Panthers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons handed the Panthers (14-1) their first loss and, for now, kept them from clinching home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. Atlanta (8-7) also kept its own playoff hopes alive, although a win by the Minnesota Vikings later in the day would eliminate the Falcons from postseason contention.
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had two chances to lead comeback drives late in the fourth quarter but couldn’t get the Panthers in the end zone.
“They may have taken us lightly,” Falcons rookie linebacker Vic Beasley said. “But we didn’t take them lightly.”
One week after battling New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. physically and verbally, Carolina Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman struggled to keep up with Jones. But Norman wasn’t matched up on Jones on the biggest play of the game.
On third and 14, Ryan scrambled to his left and heaved a deep ball to Jones, who was covered by corner Charles Tillman and linebacker Luke Kuechly. Neither could climb with Jones, who leaped up, made the catch and strolled into the end zone for the winning touchdown.
“Just how we drew it up,” joked Falcons coach Dan Quinn.
Jones finished with 178 yards on nine receptions and broke his own Falcons record for receiving yards in a season.
Ryan completed 23 of 30 passes for 306 yards. His touchdown pass to Jones was the 200th of his career.
The Falcons’ win comes just two weeks after a 38-0 loss to the Panthers in Carolina.
“This was a measuring-stick game, a complete team win,” Quinn said.
The Panthers, who averaged 38.8 points in their last five games, were held to a season-low 13 points.
“We didn’t coach to our abilities or play to our abilities,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “But give them credit. This is part of the journey. We have to refocus. But we’ve accomplished a lot. Let’s not lose sight of that.”
Newton finished 17 of 30 for 142 yards passing. He also rushed seven times for 46 yards.
“We didn’t match the Falcons’ intensity at times,” Newton said. “They made more plays. That’s unacceptable. Come back and get ready for a good week of practice. No magic words need to be said.”
The Panthers will look to secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs next week at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Falcons finish up at home against the New Orleans Saints.