It was all set up for quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to cap his fourth-quarter return to the Carolina Panthers’ lineup with a dramatic finish. He had returned to the field after being knocked from the game on a third-quarter play on which two Atlanta Falcons defenders were called for illegal hits, one of them resulting in an ejection and later being called “a cheap shot” by the Panthers.

Bridgewater had moved the Panthers into scoring position with a deep completion on third and long, and Carolina needed a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie. The Falcons, after all, are not known for their ability to hold leads and finish games properly, and they had given the Panthers a chance with a missed extra point.

But Bridgewater couldn’t quite make it a storybook finish, throwing an interception in the final minute as the Panthers lost to the Falcons, 25-17, on “Thursday Night Football” in Charlotte.

The Panthers reached the Atlanta 30-yard line with just more than a minute remaining. Bridgewater, along the way, had a 42-yard completion to wide receiver D.J. Moore on a third-and-18 play. But Bridgewater was picked off by Atlanta cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson with 57 seconds left, sealing the outcome. Two kneel-downs by quarterback Matt Ryan completed the victory for the Falcons.

“Tough loss,” Bridgewater said. “We’ve just got to find ways to finish these games. That can’t be the common thing around here, coming up short. We get this weekend off. We’re at the midpoint of the season. I think it’s a good time for us to just reflect, see some of the things we’ve done well this first half of the season, see what we need to improve on.”

Bridgewater was sacked on a third-quarter play on which he was kicked by one Falcons defensive end, Dante Fowler, and then hit in the head while on the turf by another, Charles Harris. Both hits were penalized. The Panthers declined the tripping penalty on Fowler and accepted the personal foul on Harris, who was ejected from the game.

“I just knew someone stuck their leg out from Atlanta and as I was tripped, I was just stumbling,” Bridgewater said. “And I knew at some point, guys would be swarming so I just tried to get down, protect myself. I don’t really know who hit me. I just know someone got ejected.”

P.J. Walker took over at quarterback for the Panthers, finishing that drive and beginning the next one. Bridgewater returned to the game in the fourth quarter, three plays into the Carolina drive following his exit. He was cleared under the NFL’s concussion protocol, according to Fox, and the team’s medical staff was seen working on his neck and shoulder area. Bridgewater’s head was bent to the side on the hit by Harris, replays showed.

“Yeah, I think it was a cheap shot,” Panthers running back Mike Davis said in a postgame video conference. “It was late, hit him in the neck. Yeah, that’s just something you just hate to see. Like, it’s unnecessary.”

Said Carolina wide receiver Curtis Samuel: “We didn’t like the hit. All we could do is move forward.”

Bridgewater was asked whether he felt he’d been victimized by a cheap shot.

“The guy stuck his leg out,” Bridgewater said. “They threw a flag for that. I think that guy was just trying to prevent me from scrambling. But at the same time, it was a flag. The hit, I’ll probably go back and watch what happened. But I really can’t answer that.”

The Panthers, playing again without injured tailback Christian McCaffrey even after he returned to practice this week, had their losing streak extended to three games. They dropped to 3-5 at the halfway point of their season. Bridgewater threw a second-quarter touchdown pass to Samuel on a flea flicker. Samuel also had a first-quarter touchdown run for Carolina.

Ryan and tailback Todd Gurley ran for touchdowns for the Falcons, who improved to 2-6. Wide receiver Julio Jones had seven catches for 137 yards but fellow wideout Calvin Ridley exited the game with an ankle injury.

Gurley’s touchdown was a good thing for the Falcons this time. He’d accidentally scored a touchdown Sunday in a loss to the Detroit Lions after being told to fall at the 1-yard line to run down the clock to set up a potential winning field goal.

No lead is safe with the Falcons. Not in that Super Bowl against the New England Patriots to close the 2016 season. Not this season when they watched that spinning onside kick by the Dallas Cowboys. Not Sunday against the Lions.

“It just felt like it was going to be a different night,” Ryan told Fox after the game. “And our defense stepped up. They did a great job making plays. I’m happy for them. To come through in that type of situation, that’s a confidence builder for us moving forward.”

Kicker Younghoe Koo provided four field goals Thursday for the Falcons but missed an extra point following Gurley’s fourth-quarter touchdown that kept it an eight-point game and gave the Panthers their late chance to tie. This time, the Falcons held on.

“I hope it’s the start of something,” Ryan said. “I really feel like, although we’re 2-6, I feel like we’ve been in some tight ones. We’ve played some good football. I think we can play some really tough football games in the second half of the season.”

October 29, 2020 at 11:01 PM EDT
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Bridgewater returns to game

By Mark Maske

Teddy Bridgewater returned to the game for the Panthers after being cleared under the concussion protocol, according to Fox, and the team’s medical staff was seen working on Bridgewater’s neck and shoulder area. He took warm-up throws on the sideline but remained there, wearing a baseball cap, while P.J. Walker remained at quarterback to open the Carolina drive that followed Bridgewater’s exit from the game on a play on which the Falcons were penalized for two illegal hits. Three plays into the drive, Bridgewater returned to the game and replaced Walker. (Falcons 25, Panthers 17 with 8:20 left in the 4th quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 10:55 PM EDT
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Todd Gurley scores a touchdown, not accidentally this time

By Mark Maske

Running back Todd Gurley scored a touchdown for the Falcons, and this time it was a good thing for them. Gurley scored on a three-yard run. He scored an accidental touchdown Sunday against the Lions, remember, when the Falcons planned to run down the clock before kicking a potential winning field goal. This is still a one-score game, however, because kicker Younghoe Koo missed the extra point for the Falcons. (Falcons 25, Panthers 17 with 11:01 left in the 4th quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 10:49 PM EDT
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Bridgewater leaves game after two illegal hits on sack

By Mark Maske

Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater left Thursday night’s game against the Falcons following a play in which he was kicked by one Atlanta defender and hit late in the head by another.

Bridgewater was sacked when he was kicked by the Falcons’ Dante Fowler. As Bridgewater fell to the turf, he was hit in the head by Atlanta’s Charles Harris. Both hits were penalized, with the Panthers declining the tripping penalty on Fowler and accepting the personal foul on Harris. The officials ejected Harris from the game.

P.J. Walker replaced Bridgewater at quarterback. The Panthers got a 39-yard field goal by kicker Joey Slye on a drive that had been extended by a successful fake punt, a 28-yard run on fourth and nine. (Falcons 19, Panthers 17 with 2:59 left in the 3rd quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 10:27 PM EDT
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Falcons add to lead with another field goal

By Mark Maske

Make it four field goals for Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo. The latest was from 29 yards. The Falcons added to their lead but could end up regretting these missed opportunities on offense. They’re not exactly known for holding leads and finishing games properly. (Falcons 19, Panthers 14 with 6:22 left in the 3rd quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 10:21 PM EDT
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Panthers fail on fourth down again

By Mark Maske

The Panthers, for the second time in the game, were stopped on a fourth-down try. This time, running back Mike Davis was tackled for a one-yard loss on fourth and one from the Atlanta 42-yard line. Coach Matt Rhule first had sent the punt team on the field, then changed his mind and sent the offense back on. The Panthers had retained possession — temporarily, as it turned out — when an earlier catch-and-fumble ruling by the officials was overturned by a replay review and called an incompletion. (Falcons 16, Panthers 14 with 11:32 left in the 3rd quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 10:03 PM EDT
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Falcons lead at half despite Teddy Bridgewater’s perfect passer rating

By Mark Maske

The Falcons are a one-win team but they played well in the first half Thursday night in Charlotte. They lead the Panthers, 16-14.

The Falcons rolled up 251 yards of total offense in the half but reached the end zone only once, on a 13-yard touchdown scramble by quarterback Matt Ryan. They settled for three field goals, including a 36-yarder by kicker Younghoe Koo as time expired in the half.

Ryan threw for 197 yards on 13-for-19 passing. Julio Jones had four catches for 85 yards. Fellow Falcons wideout Calvin Ridley left the game with an ankle injury and is questionable to return.

The Panthers are playing again without tailback Christian McCaffrey. He practiced this week but remained on the injured reserve list. He has not played since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2.

Wide receiver Curtis Samuel had a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown for Carolina in the first half. His 29-yard touchdown catch came on a pass thrown by quarterback Teddy Bridgewater off a flea flicker, as the Panthers cashed in on an interception thrown by Ryan. Bridgewater threw for 100 yards in the half on seven-for-eight passing accuracy. He had a perfect passer rating of 158.3, yet the Panthers trail. (Falcons 16, Panthers 14 at halftime)

October 29, 2020 at 9:41 PM EDT
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Teddy Bridgewater stopped on fourth-and-one run

By Mark Maske

The Panthers were stopped on a fourth-and-one try from the Atlanta 34-yard line. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater tried to run for the first down but was stopped for no gain. (Panthers 14, Falcons 13 with 3:55 left in the 2nd quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 9:39 PM EDT
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Matt Ryan runs for touchdown, Calvin Ridley hurt

By Mark Maske

Matt Ryan isn’t exactly known for his mobility but he scored a touchdown on a 13-yard scramble, moving to his right to escape the pass rush and then managing to slip into the front corner of the end zone. It was Ryan’s 10th career touchdown run. But it could have been a costly drive for the Falcons as wide receiver Calvin Ridley was hurt while being tackled after a catch and run. The extent of his injury, apparently to his left foot, was not immediately clear. (Panthers 14, Falcons 13 with 8:02 left in the 2nd quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 9:21 PM EDT
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Panthers increase lead with touchdown on flea flicker

By Mark Maske

The Panthers cashed in on an interception thrown by Atlanta’s Matt Ryan with a touchdown pass from quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to wide receiver Curtis Samuel on a flea-flicker. Bridgewater handed the football to running back Mike Davis, who pitched the ball back to Bridgewater, who made an on-target throw to Samuel for a 29-yard touchdown. The Panthers had to move only 40 yards after an interception along the sideline by cornerback Donte Jackson of a Ryan pass intended for wide receiver Calvin Ridley. (Panthers 14, Falcons 6 with 12:40 left in the 2nd quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 9:00 PM EDT
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Two possessions, two field goals for Falcons

By Mark Maske

The Falcons are moving the ball well but can’t get in the end zone so far. They reached the Carolina 13-yard line, but their drive stalled there and Matt Ryan was sacked on third down. Kicker Younghoe Koo connected on his second field goal, this time from 37 yards. (Panthers 7, Falcons 6 with 2:36 left in the first quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 8:54 PM EDT
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Panthers get touchdown on their opening drive

By Mark Maske

The Panthers answered the Falcons’ field goal with a touchdown. Curtis Samuel scored on an 11-yard run to cap a six-play, 75-yard drive. Not much defense is being played in Charlotte so far. (Panthers 7, Falcons 3 with 8:14 left in the 1st quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 8:41 PM EDT
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Falcons get early field goal after opting against fourth-down gamble

By Mark Maske

The Falcons have the early lead in Charlotte on a 20-yard field goal by kicker Younghoe Koo. Coach Raheem Morris opted against a fourth-and-one try from the Carolina 3-yard line, calling a timeout and choosing the field goal after initially leaving the Atlanta offense on the field. Quarterback Matt Ryan began the game with two completions to wide receiver Julio Jones totaling 52 yards. He followed with another completion to tight end Hayden Hurst for 11 yards, but the Falcons ultimately couldn’t get into the end zone. (Falcons 3, Panthers 0 with 11:14 left in the 1st quarter)

October 29, 2020 at 7:31 PM EDT
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What to watch for in Falcons at Panthers

By Mark Maske

Tailback Christian McCaffrey is not expected to return to the Panthers’ lineup when they face the Falcons in Charlotte on “Thursday Night Football” on Fox, the NFL Network and Amazon Prime.

McCaffrey has been sidelined since suffering a high ankle sprain in Week 2 of the season. He returned to practice this week. But it always was regarded as a long shot that he’d return to game action after an abbreviated week of practice, and he’s expected to remain on the injured reserve list for now. That will give him another 10 days before the Panthers’ next game Nov. 8 at Kansas City.

The Panthers are on a two-game losing streak and bring a record of 3-4 into the game. They’ll try to reach .500 at the halfway point of their season with a triumph over the Falcons. That would be a nice achievement, with a first-year head coach in Matt Rhule and a new starting quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. Rhule was hired from the college ranks at Baylor and Bridgewater was signed in free agency to replace Cam Newton. The circumstances of this coronavirus-affected season, with no offseason practices and no preseason games, have been particularly trying for those teams with new coaching staffs and little continuity from last season.

The Falcons have a record of 1-6 and are playing their third game since Raheem Morris was elevated to interim head coach to replace the fired Dan Quinn. The final game for Quinn was a 23-16 loss to the Panthers on Oct. 11 that dropped the Falcons’ record to 0-5, prompting owner Arthur Blank to fire Quinn and General Manager Thomas Dimitroff.

The Falcons are coming off a loss Sunday in Atlanta to the Detroit Lions in which tailback Todd Gurley accidentally scored a go-ahead touchdown instead of falling at the 1-yard line to allow the Falcons to run down the clock before kicking a potential winning field goal. They’re playing out the string in a lost season but reportedly don’t intend to trade quarterback Matt Ryan or wide receiver Julio Jones by Tuesday’s NFL trade deadline.