ATLANTA — Matt Ryan took an awful beating.
Another win for the Atlanta Falcons will make the pain a lot easier to take.
Shaking off a career-high seven sacks, Ryan completed a 59-yard pass to Roddy White with about a minute left, setting up Matt Bryant’s 40-yard field goal that kept the Falcons perfect on the season with a wild 30-28 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
After squandering a 24-14 lead in the second half, the Falcons (4-0) needed a crucial fumble by Cam Newton to even have a chance — and they still faced long odds when the Panthers downed a punt at the Atlanta 1 with 1:09 remaining.
Ryan had no timeouts and surely some doubt about how much time his beleaguered offensive line would give him. But he dropped back about as far as he could, threw it about as far as he could, and relied on former James Island High star White to go up and make the catch.
He did, between two defenders.
Bryant’s kick won it with 5 seconds remaining.
“We made the plays when we needed to,” said Ryan, who passed for 369 yards and three touchdowns. “That’s what you need to do week to week in this league.”
The Falcons (4-0) are off to their best start since 2004, when they reached the NFC championship game.
This was their stiffest challenge yet.
“That was exciting. Whew!” said coach Mike Smith, finally able to exhale. “Every time it looked bleak, every time it looked like we didn’t have a chance, we were able to overcome it.”
Newton threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score. But he let the ball slip away when it looked as though he had clinched the victory for the Panthers (1-3).
“You have to protect the football,” Newton said. “That was a key focus going into this game, and I fumbled. There’s a lot of guys that are trusting the ball carrier, and I was the ball carrier that particular play to get the job done. And I dropped the ball.”
On third-and-2 at the Atlanta 46, Newton took the snap and bulled his way over the left side, his body surging across the spot needed for the first down. On the sideline, several of the Panthers broke into a celebration.
But John Abraham knocked it loose, the ball squirting backward. Fullback Mike Tolbert covered it for Carolina at the 45 — 1 yard shy of a first down. After attempting unsuccessfully to draw the Falcons offside, the Panthers punted it away.
Ryan and White took advantage of another chance.
White was sandwiched between cornerback Josh Norman and safety Haruki Nakamura, but managed to leap over both of them to bring down the pass at the Carolina 40. A pass interference call and two short completions made things easier for Bryant, who had already connected from 41 and 33 yards to improve to 8 for 8 on the season.
Make it 9 for 9.
The kick was straight down the middle.
With Julio Jones hindered by an injured right hand, White came up with a huge game for the Falcons. He had eight catches for 169 yards, including a pair of touchdowns. But his biggest catch was the final one.
“Matt told me he was going to throw it up there. Just make a play,” White said. “Not for one second did we think we were going to lose the game.”
Ryan credited his offensive line on the final drive, even though they struggled most of the day to keep him upright against Charles Johnson and the rest of the Panthers defense.
Johnson spent so much time in the backfield he should’ve worn an Atlanta jersey, finishing with 3½ sacks. Ryan was hit nine times after throwing and hurried on eight other attempts.
“The offensive line did a great job,” Ryan said, all evidence to the contrary. “If you’re going to throw the football that far down the field, you need some time. The guys did a great job of pass protection, giving us time to throw it down there.”
Newton’s fumble ruined what had been a stellar performance. He threw for 215 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown to Greg Olsen early in the game, then a 36-yard scoring play to Kealoha Pilares that put the Panthers ahead 28-24 with 7:55 remaining.
Newton also ran for 86 yards on nine carries, bulling his way into the end zone from 4 yards late in the third quarter.
The Panthers played much better than they did in their last outing, a 36-7 home loss to the New York Giants, but it wasn’t enough to prevent them from sliding a daunting three games behind Atlanta in the NFC South.
“I want to apologize to my teammates and the fans that were watching out there,” Newton said. “Everybody was doing their job. I clearly had the first down, but I’ve just got to hold onto the football.”
Ryan also connected on a 60-yard touchdown with Michael Turner, who took a screen pass right about the line of scrimmage and zigzagged down the field for the first scoring reception of his nine-year career.
DeAngelo Williams scored Carolina’s other TD on a 13-yard run.
Notes: The Falcons failed to score a TD on their opening possession for the first time this season, going three-and-out. Also, it was the first time the Panthers did not allow a touchdown on their opponent’s opening drive. ... Nakamura had an early interception, but it was largely a day to forget for the Carolina free safety. He was beaten on both of White’s touchdown receptions, missed a tackle on Turner’s scoring play and had the ball snatched away by White on the long pass that set up the winning field goal. ... Atlanta’s only other 4-0 start came in 1986.