CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The ball and perhaps the Falcons' season was spinning on the 8-yard line.
If rookie cornerback Robert Alford could come up with the fumble recovery, the Falcons would have a chance to turn the day around.
But this being 2013, he did not.
The ball squirted out of Alford's grasp and into the waiting arms of Carolina wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who happened to be lying nearby.
With that, the Panthers began to pull away in a 17-point fourth quarter and rout the Falcons 34-10 at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday before a festive crowd of 73,720 fans.
"Our guy is going for it and their guy is lying on the ground and the ball ends up in their hands," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "You would look at that and say, 'How in the world did that happen?' Very reminiscent of the season that we've had."
It was all downhill from there for the Falcons, who dropped to 2-6, while the resurgent Panthers improve to 5-4.
Following the fumble recovery, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton scored on the next play for a 24-10 lead. On the ensuing series, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw his third interception of the game, which was returned 38 yards by Drayton Florence for a touchdown. After another Carolina defensive stop, the Panthers added a 20-yard field to win going away.
"We're just not making the plays to win the game," cornerback Asante Samuel said. "This is kind of new for everybody around here. We just kind of have to stick together and ride it out."
Though they never led all day, the Falcons were trailing 17-10 when Newton threw to LaFell at the Atlanta 15-yard line. Samuel missed the interception but scrambled back into the play and knocked the ball loose.
"That one definitely changed the momentum or kept the momentum in their favor when we had an opportunity there to make a play and get the ball for our offense," Smith said.
LaFell was still prone when Alford's carom came back to him.
"When he popped the ball out, I was just praying that the ball would bounce back to me. And luckily, it did," LaFell said.
At the schedule's half-way mark, the Falcons are officially deep long shots for the postseason and would likely have to run the table to qualify.
The normally accurate Ryan had another shaky performance. For the first time in his career, he has thrown seven interceptions in two games. He had thrown just three interceptions over the first six games of the season.
"I think really all three of the interceptions are a case of being aggressive, trying to get the ball in spots," said Ryan, who completed 20-of-27 passes for 219 yards and one touchdown. "But I don't see us pressing."
Carolina took advantage of three key Atlanta penalties to post a 14-10 halftime.
On the Falcons' second possession, Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted a Ryan pass intended for Tony Gonzalez at Atlanta's 39-yard line. But the Falcons appeared to have the Panthers stopped on a third-and-3 from the 12. But rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant was called for defensive pass interference and two plays later, Carolina's Mike Tolbert scored from four yards out.
The Falcons answered with an apparent touchdown run by Steven Jackson, capping an 80-yard drive. But the play was nullified by a holding penalty on right guard Garrett Reynolds. The Falcons settled for a 28-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to make it 7-3.
After Trufant's first career interception, the Falcons were backed up at their 5-yard line. But after Jackson ripped off an 8-yard gain, right tackle Lamar Holmes was called for lining up in the backfield. Unable to recover, the Falcons had to punt and the Panthers used a 24-yard punt return by Ted Ginn to set up first-and-10 at Atlanta's 34.
Five plays later, on fourth-and-1 from the 14, the Falcons blew pass coverage as Newton faked a dive into the line, rolled to his right and lofted a pass to a wide open tight end Greg Olsen to make it 14-3. Newton finished with 249 passing yards, going 23-for-37 with a touchdown and two interceptions.
"We had a call (that was not) executed," said safety William Moore, who blew the Olsen coverage. "I'll take the blame for that. I was aggressive against the run all day and that was just a great call by their offensive coordinator. He took advantage of me being aggressive against the run."
The game remained in the balance until LaFell's unlike fumble recovery with 9:00 left.
"We have many different problems," Smith said. "Sometimes it's the offense. Sometimes it's the defense. Sometimes it's special teams. Sometimes it's coaching.
"When you are 2-6, you're obviously not doing (anything) very consistently (or) effectively."
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