Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan has had better days.

With the Falcons trying to rally, Ryan made two errant throws into the end zone that proved costly. He missed one open receiver with a high throw and tossed an interception as the Panthers held on for a 23-16 victory Sunday before 6,656 mostly disgruntled fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“It’s just so hard to win,” center Alex Mack said.

With the Falcons down 20-7 at the half, the fans booed the team as it went into the locker room. The Falcons, playing without Julio Jones, tried to rally in the second half, but came up short.

The Falcons dropped to 0-5 on the season, while the Panthers improved to 3-2.

The Falcons, who were favored to win, are now off to their worst start since 1997 when they started 0-5 and finished 7-9 in Dan Reeves' first season. In 1998, Reeves became the first coach to take the Falcons to the Super Bowl.

Ryan took the loss tough.

“I know I’d like to play better than I did today for sure and give our team a better chance specifically late in the game," Ryan said. "I thought we did a pretty good job, but late in the game, we’ve got to find a way to punch it in.”

Carolina quarterback Teddy Bridgewater out-played Ryan as he completed 27 of 37 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns. He had a passer rating of 116.2

Ryan completed 21 of 37 passes for 226 yards and one interception. He finished with a passer rating of 63.6. It also was Ryan’s second-straight game without a touchdown pass.

The Falcons wasted a strong rushing performance by running back Todd Gurley, who finished with 121 yards rushing on 14 carries and had a 35-yard touchdown run.

Atlanta Falcons running back Todd Gurley (21) runs after a catch in the second quarter against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/For the AJC)

Credit: Jason Getz

icon to expand image

Credit: Jason Getz

Here are five things we learned from the loss:

1. Good starts: The Falcons’ defense and offense got off to good starts then quickly fell apart.

The defense held the Panthers on their opening drive and forced a punt.

The offense, converting on three-of-three third down situations, promptly drove 92 yards in 10 plays. Gurley blasted through the left side of the line for a 35-yard touchdown run to cap off the drive.

The Falcons started the second half strong, too. The offense opened with a drive that ended with a field goal to make it 20-10 and the defense got a stop after giving four straight scoring drives.

After getting the ball back, the Falcons drove down the field. Ryan overthrew tight end Hayden Hurst and the Falcons had to settle for a 31-yard field goal to make it 20-13.

“It was hot coming off the edge,” Ryan said. “I tried to through it with a little bit of touch and I just missed.”

After the defense got another stop, the Falcons went back on the move. On third down and 3 from the 5-yard line, Ryan tried to force a pass to wide receiver Russell Gage in the back of the end zone. The pass was intercepted by Panthers cornerback Juston Burris.

The Panthers got the ball back and put together a 14-play, game-clinching drive that ended with a 22-yard field goal.

2. Big Plays. The Panthers used three big-plays to help build a 20-7 halftime lead. Offensively, the Falcons seemed perplexed as the Panthers only rushed three or four players and dropped seven or eight into coverage.

Despite Gurley’s hot start in the running game, the Falcons kept trying to pass the ball.

The Panthers put together a 14-play drive that was capped by kicker Joey Slaye making a 38-yard field goal.

After forcing a punt, the Panthers added a 39-yard field goal by Slaye. Wide receiver Robbie Anderson got loose for a 29-yard reception in the drive, it was the Falcons’ 26th play of 20 yards or more allowed on the season.

After forcing another punt as the Falcons’ offense looked sloppy while playing without Jones, the Panthers struck again. Wide receiver D.J. Moore got away from Falcons cornerback Isaiah Oliver and sped down the sideline for a 57-yard touchdown.

It was the defense’s 27th play of 20 yards of more allowed.

The Falcons’ offense stayed stuck in the mud and the Panthers got the ball with 1:32.

Using a 23-yard pass play to running back Mike Davis, the Panthers were on the move. It was the 28th play of 20 yards of more allowed.

On second-and-goal from the 3, four Falcons defenders stood around as Davis ran out of the backfield and into the flat for a way-too-easy 3-yard touchdown catch.

The theme of big plays and busted coverages continued.

“But elimination of the explosive plays, that’s a big part of it," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. "If you get beat on a man-to-man route or those, those are ones that go along with that territory.

"We’ll have to go back and look, was there an error of technique or error of a concept that wasn’t played correctly. Those are the things I know we’ll go back and look at.”

Quinn, along with general manager Thomas Dimitroff, were fired hours after game.

Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter

Falcons RB Todd Gurley - who had his most productive game of the season - was down after the loss to the Panthers.

3. Gurley a spark plug. Gurley went over the 100-yard mark in the third quarter and helped the Falcons’ drive down to get a 46-yard field goal by Younghoe Koo to make it 20-10.

The Falcons have not had a 100-yard rusher since Brian Hill rushed for 115 yards against Carolina on Dec. 23, 2018.

Gurley had not rushed for more than 100 yards since he had 132 yards and two touchdowns against Detroit on Dec. 2, 2018, when he was with the Los Angeles Rams.

“Those guys up front did a hell of a job," Gurley said. "Hats off to them. Tight ends, (fullback) Keith (Smith), and receivers blocking down field. Credit to everyone being aggressive. I did not really have to do much but run. Those guys created space for me.”

4. Third downs. The Falcons wanted to do better on third downs against the Panthers.

In the first half, the Panthers were 4 of 7 on third down and the Falcons were 3 of 7, but the Panthers were able to sustain their drives because of the three big plays of 20 yards or more.

Before Atlanta’s last-ditch drive, the Panthers finished 6 of 12 (50%) and the Falcons finished 6 of 13 (46%) on third downs.

5. Injury report. Falcons defensive Takk McKinley tried to play with a groin injury, but left after a quarter and didn’t return. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield left the game with an ankle injury, but he returned to the action.

The Falcons had won the past five meetings against the Panthers and eight of the past nine.

The Falcons next play at Minnesota at 1 p.m. Sunday.

Falcons' next four games

Panthers at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 11

Falcons at Vikings at 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18

Lions at Falcons at 1 p.m. Sunday Oct. 25

Falcons at Panthers at 8:20 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29

The Bow Tie Chronicles Podcasts:

Can be found on Google, iTunes and TuneIn

For more content about the Atlanta Falcons

Follow me on Twitter @DorlandoAJC

On Facebook at Atlanta Falcons News Now

Atlanta Falcons coverage on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Have a question? Email me at dledbetter@ajc.com