ATLANTA -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera wasn't confident that Cam Newton could pick up one yard on fourth down, and made the decision to put the game in the hands of his defense.
That also meant he was giving Matt Ryan another chance, and the Falcons' quarterback saved Atlanta from its first loss of the season.
The Falcons took advantage of Rivera's decision and put together a last-minute scoring drive that started on their own 1-yard line and ended with Matt Bryant's winning 40-yard field goal with five seconds to play in a 30-28 win over Carolina, Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Leading 28-27 with 1:30 to play, the Panthers appeared to pick up a game-clinching first down. But as he dove beyond what would have been a first down, Newton fumbled. Mike Tolbert recovered the fumble, but after an officials' review, the ball was spotted one yard short of a first down.
On 4th-and-1 Carolina unsuccessfully tried to draw the Falcons offside before punting.
The plan appeared to work. Carolina punter Brad Nortman pinned Atlanta at its own 1 with 59 seconds to play.
But on the first play of the drive, Roddy White made a leaping catch on a 59-yard pass from Ryan to move the Falcons into Panther territory. Four plays later, Bryant nailed the winning field goal.
"I was hoping that they would punt it to us, and that's the right thing to do in that situation on a fourth down and one," said Falcons coach Mike Smith. "They did what most any coach would do. It was a very good strategic move."
Smith's support was little solace to Rivera.
"We're not going to candy-coat this," Rivera said. "This was an opportunity for us, and we failed to capitalize. All we got to do is keep the ball in front of us, not let anybody being us. And we screwed that up. It's huge. We can't accept that."
The Falcons improved to 4-0 for the first time since 2004 and take a commanding lead in the NFC South into October.
Ryan, Michael Turner and White each made big plays, and the Falcons' defense forced its 12th turnover of the season.
Ryan threw two long touchdown passes to White in the first half, and Turner took a dump-off pass 60 yards for his first touchdown reception of his career on the Falcons' first possession of the second half.
Turner had his best game of the season, sparking an Atlanta rushing attack that entered the game that ranked 25th in the NFL. Turner finished with 103 rushing yards.
Newton, who played his high school football in metro Atlanta, threw two touchdowns and ran for another, but walked off the field with his head down. He completed 15 of 24 passes for 215 yards and added 85 rushing yards, leading a balanced Panther ground game that finished with close to 200 yards.
Carolina (2-2, 1-1 NFC South) hit Ryan on the first play and never stopped. Ryan had been sacked only four times coming into the game. Defensive end Charles Johnson had 3.5 of the Panthers' seven sacks Sunday.
The Panthers took a 28-24 lead on a quick-hitting receiver screen from Newton to Kealoha Pilares, who raced 37 yards untouched for a touchdown with eight minutes to play.
Bryant made a 33-yard field goal on Atlanta's ensuing drive to cut the lead to 28-27, and the Falcons' defense forced a punt.
Trailing by with 2:40 to play, Falcons coach Mike Smith elected to punt on 4th-and-11 from the Atlanta 28. The Panthers took over on their own 27, but were unable to run out the clock.
The Panthers got off to a quick start. Newton capped an opening scoring drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen on third down. Olson bounced off a poor tackle attempt by William Moore and spun into the end zone to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead three minutes into the game.
Ryan hooked up with White on touchdown passes of 48 and 14 yards in the first half. White finished with eight catches for 169 yards. Ryan completed 25 of 40 passes for 369 yards.
The Falcons led by at least 20 in each of their first three wins. Their Week 2 win over the Broncos was the only game that was competitive in the fourth quarter.
"I think it was very important to win a game in this manner, giving the way we won our first three games," said Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. "I think we will be a better team after this experience. These types of wins give you a lot of confidence."
Notes: The Falcons improved to 8-0 at home in September under coach Mike Smith. ... Second-year Falcons WR Julio Jones did not have a reception until midway through the fourth quarter. ... The Falcons lined up Jones at tailback and Turner at fullback on one play. Ryan faked an outside pitch to Jones, and quickly handed off to Turner who plowed through the middle for a sizable gain. ... Captain Munnerlyn took over punt return duties for the Panthers in place of Joe Adams, who was inactive. ... There were 69,594 tickets distributed for the game. ... Jason Snelling got the start at fullback for the Falcons in pace of Lousaka Polite, who was inactive.