Staff Photo: Jason Braverman
Atlanta Falcons' Michael Turner finds a hole in the Carolina Panthers defense and runs the ball up field. Turner ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons finally played a game that's more their style.
For Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, it was just another tough loss.
Michael Turner ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns, Matt Ryan scored the tie-breaking TD with 7 minutes remaining, and Corey Peters came up with a huge interception that helped the Falcons seal a 31-17 victory over the Panthers on Sunday.
The Falcons (3-3) were clearly intent on re-establishing their trademark running game against a vulnerable defense. Led by Turner, they ran the ball 35 times — 13 more than they threw it.
"We'd like to be able to do that every week," Ryan said.
Newton, who grew up just a few miles south of the Georgia Dome, wowed the crowd most of the day. He threw for 237 yards and took off on a 14-yard touchdown run that put the Panthers (1-5) 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.
But the homecoming turned sour.
After Matt Bryant's tying field goal and Ryan's 1-yard sneak, Newton made his biggest blunder of the day trying to set up a screen pass. Peters, a 305-pound defensive tackle, caught the rookie off guard by dropping into coverage. Newton flipped a short pass toward DeAngelo Williams, but Peters reached up with one hand to pick it off at the Carolina 40.
"I kind of fell into it," Peters said. "It's a lot different than you imagine it in the sense that when you catch the ball, you freeze. 'Oh, I got the ball!'"
The Falcons offense did the rest, driving 39 yards 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.
"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. "I'm doing a self-evaluation as we speak. 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."
Turner also scored on a 1-yard run at the end of the first quarter, carrying a season-high 27 times and breaking a streak of three straight games without reaching 100 yards.
"It started with the O-line. They came out with a nasty attitude today, that they were going to move the line of scrimmage," Turner said. "I love to see green, man. You give me some space, I'll do what I do."
Ryan, who was averaging more than 39 passes a game, completed 14 of 22 for 163 yards in a performance that looked more like the Atlanta teams of the last three seasons, not the one that got off to a sluggish start this year and was in danger of dropping two games below .500 for the first time since 2007.
"We need to get our identity back, and that starts with running the football," Turner said. "We want to bury teams, not just let up."
Newton finished 21 of 35 but was picked off three times. The other two were a little easier to take, the first coming on a deflected pass, the last 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.
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.
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, then Newton headed to the pros as the top overall pick.
Carolina took the second-half kickoff and burned 8½ minutes off the clock, finishing with Newton's touchdown scamper. He dropped back to pass, couldn't find anyone open and took off around left end, shrugging off one would-be tackler along the way before dancing like Deion and posing for the crowd in the corner of the end zone.
The Panthers had nothing to celebrate at the end.
"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."
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. ... The Falcons didn't have any turnovers.