CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Matt Ryan needed a while to figure out the last time he played for a team with a losing record.
"We had a bad basketball team when I was in high school," Ryan said. "I think were we like 5-25."
But losing has become the norm this season for Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, who lost for the fifth time in six games, 34-10 to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
"It's definitely difficult," said Ryan, who was intercepted three times, one of which was returned 38 yards for a touchdown. "Turnovers and penalties are difficult to overcome. ... We weren't able to do that today. We've been able to do that at different times in the past, but we weren't able to do that today."
The optimism that once surrounded Atlanta's season seems like a distant memory. Injuries, a lack of a running game and an inability to produce after the first quarter has hurt the Falcons all season.
And Sunday was no different.
Atlanta pretty much owns the first quarter, outscoring their opponents 44-10. It's the other three quarters that have been problematic, as the Falcons have been outscored by a combined margin of 198-132.
The Panthers outscored the Falcons 17-0 in the fourth quarter.
At 2-6, Atlanta's playoff hopes are fading fast.
Safety William Moore said it's up the players whether they're going to keep fighting or give up.
"You either got it or you don't," Moore said. "Either you're going to show up or lay down. It's going to determine what type of man you are."
Cam Newton, an Atlanta native, threw for one touchdown and ran for another to overcome two first half interceptions. He passed for 249 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen, and also scored on an 8-yard run.
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross was more impressed with Newton on Sunday than in the previous three games in which the third-year quarterback played near-perfect ball.
"There were times today where he could have gotten rattled," Gross said. "He took some shots and had some turnovers, but he didn't (get rattled). He kept on swinging."
Newton entered on quite a streak, completing 77 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns — six passing and two rushing — and no turnovers in his previous three games.
But he had two first-half interceptions and wasn't sharp on his deep balls, regularly overthrowing his receivers.
"He got a little carried away early on and tried to make things happen," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "The ball sailed a little bit on him today and when he's doing that it's because he's anxious. He's excited. He wants to do well. It's unfortunate that he didn't bring the ball down a little bit because there were some big plays left out there."
Newton called his play "unacceptable."
"I didn't put my best foot forward in the first half," he said.
But his teammates were quick to back him up.
"Everybody gets wrapped up in stats and quarterback ratings and yards per catch or whatever," Olsen said. "At the end of the day, when you go out and you win 34-10 and you are the quarterback — you did your job."
The Panthers (5-3) pulled within a game of the New Orleans Saints, who lost to the New York Jets.
Fullback Mike Tolbert scored his fifth touchdown in the last four games on a 4-yard burst and cornerback Drayton Florence intercepted Ryan and returned it 38 yards for a score to seal the win.
The Falcons continued to struggle without Julio Jones and Roddy White. Tony Gonzalez had six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown but the running game continues to struggle as Steven Jackson and company were held to a combined 78 yards on the ground.
The Panthers defense limited Ryan to 219 yards passing.
"I know Matt. He's going to look at this film. He's going to obsess over it," Gonzalez said. "I have no doubt he's going to bounce back."
The Panthers got a huge break early in the fourth quarter.
Leading 17-10, Carolina's Brandon LaFell broke free in Atlanta territory for a big gain but had the ball punched out from behind by cornerback Asante Samuel. The Falcons had a chance to recover, but the ball bounced right back into LaFell's arms while he was on the ground.
Newton scored on an 8-yard run on the next play to give Carolina a 24-10 lead with nine minutes remaining.
"When you're winning, things happen in your favor," LaFell said. "With all of the bad luck around here last year, that thing would have been lost. We got the luck of the bounce."
The Panthers put the game away on the next possession when Florence stepped in front of Ryan's pass in the flat and returned it for the score — the first "pick 6" allowed by the Falcons since 2010, a span of 47 games.
"If you play sports long enough, there will be ups and downs, and waves throughout that," Ryan said. "I've played poorly before, but it's about trying to stop that at one, and moving on. I wasn't able to do that."
NOTES: The Panthers lost starting right guard Chris Scott and backup Jeff Byers to injuries on Sunday, forcing them to use former defensive tackle Nate Chandler at that spot. ... The Panthers have led at halftime in all eight games this season. ... Jonathan Stewart had 43 yards rushing on nine carries and 22 yards receiving on three catches in his first game this season for the Panthers.