Two plays against Atlanta that defined 2012

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's third-and-2 from the Atlanta 46 with just over a minute remaining, and Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton bullies his way over the left side for an apparent game-clinching first down. But wait. The ball is knocked out and squirts backward where fullback Mike Tolbert recovers a yard short of the first down.

The Panthers punt.

It's first-and-10 from the 1-yard line with 59 seconds remaining. With no timeouts, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan fakes a handoff and drops about seven yards deep into his end zone. The defensive front that had sacked him seven times freezes for the play-action and Ryan unleashes a 59-yard Hail Mary that wide receiver Roddy White catches between two defenders.

Five play later, Matt Bryant kicks a 40-yard field goal to give the Falcons a 30-28 victory.

Newton's fumble and White's catch were two plays that Carolina coach Ron Rivera pointed to when the team arrived in training camp a few months ago. He used them as examples of how, had a couple of things been done differently outside the fumble and the catch, the outcome of the game would have been different.

The outcome of Carolina's season might have been different.

Instead of improving to 2-2, 2-0 in the NFC South, the Panthers fell to 1-3 that quickly became 1-6. They went into a tailspin that players admittedly had trouble escaping.

"It took us a long time to get over that," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We didn't play well at all for a while. It took us time to pick it back up."

Said Rivera: "It really did. It was a hard one. It was a very tough one, because we wanted it. We played so well. Unfortunately ... a couple of plays define you. And it was hard.

"But when you break down those plays, pick them apart, certain things didn't happen in those two plays that gave us a true chance to succeed."

The Panthers, winners of three straight and four of their last five to improve to 4-3 heading into Sunday's game against Atlanta, appear to have matured past making those kind of mistakes.

They haven't made one as catastrophic as the two against Atlanta last September since the breakdown on Buffalo's touchdown with two seconds left in the 24-23 loss to the Bills.

"Understanding the situation," Rivera said. "It's all about part of the learning. I'd like to believe that's where we are now. We understand those things. We should not fall for those things."

Back to the mistakes Carolina made that led to the fumble and catch. Rivera reminded that had a lineman held a block on John Abraham longer the linebacker wouldn't have been in position to knock the ball from Newton.

He reminded had the Carolina defensive front ignored the play-fake as it should have in that situation, White wouldn't have had time to get so open on rookie cornerback Josh Norman and Ryan wouldn't have had time to get off the pass.

"There's so many little things, little nuances, that go into it that I'd like to believe we all understand now how important they are," Rivera said. "That's one of the games I pointed to about doing your job, finishing the play, finishing the game.

"It was one that took a lot of wind out of our sails. It truly hurt. Our guys played hard. We had every right to win that game and unfortunately we didn't finish it."

But it's a good reminder of how doing everything right on one or two key plays can be the difference in a game -- and perhaps a season.