Bryant field goal leads Falcons past Panther 30-28 (Yahoo! Sports)

ATLANTA (AP) — Matt Ryan took an awful beating.

Another win for the Atlanta Falcons will make the pain a lot easier to take.

Shaking off a career-high seven sacks, Ryan completed a 59-yard pass to Roddy White with about a minute remaining, setting up Matt Bryant’s 40-yard field goal that kept the Falcons perfect on the season with a wild 30-28 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

After squandering a 24-14 lead in the second half, the Falcons needed a crucial fumble by Cam Newton to even have a chance – and they still faced long odds when the Panthers downed a punt at the Atlanta 1 with 1:09 remaining.

Ryan had no timeouts and surely some doubt about how much time his beleaguered offensive line would give him. But he dropped back about as far as he could, threw it about as far as he could, and relied on White to go up and make the catch.

He did, between two defenders.

Bryant’s kick won it with 5 seconds remaining.

”We made the plays when we needed to,” said Ryan, who passed for 369 yards and three touchdowns. ”That’s what you need to do week to week in this league.”

The Falcons (4-0) are off to their best start since 2004, when they reached the NFC championship game.

This was their stiffest challenge yet.

”That was exciting. Whew!” said coach Mike Smith, finally able to exhale. ”Every time it looked bleak, every time it looked like we didn’t have a chance, we were able to overcome it.”

Newton threw two touchdown passes and ran for another score. But he let the ball slip away when it looked as though he had clinched the victory for the Panthers (1-3).

”You have to protect the football,” Newton said. ”That was a key focus going into this game, and I fumbled. There’s a lot of guys that are trusting the ball carrier, and I was the ball carrier that particular play to get the job done. And I dropped the ball.”

On third-and-2 at the Atlanta 46, Newton took the snap and bulled his way over the left side, his body surging across the spot needed for the first down. On the sideline, several of the Panthers broke into a celebration.

But John Abraham knocked it loose, the ball squirting backward. Fullback Mike Tolbert covered it for Carolina at the 45 – 1 yard shy of a first down. After attempting unsuccessfully to draw the Falcons offside, the Panthers punted it away.

Ryan and White took advantage of another chance.

”I threw it high and far to the spot we talk about,” Ryan said. ”Roddy went up and made a great catch. When you’re in that situation late in the game, that’s what you have to do.”

White was sandwiched between cornerback Josh Norman and safety Haruki Nakamura, but managed to leap over both of them to bring down the pass at the Carolina 40. A pass interference call and two short completions made things easier for Bryant, who had already connected from 41 and 33 yards to improve to 8 for 8 on the season.

Make it 9 for 9.

The kick was straight down the middle.

With Julio Jones hindered by an injured right hand, White came up with a huge game for the Falcons. He had eight catches for 169 yards, including a pair of touchdowns. But his biggest catch was the final one.

”Matt told me he was going to throw it up there. Just make a play,” White said. ”Not for one second did we think we were going to lose the game.”

Ryan credited his offensive line on the final drive, even though they struggled most of the day to keep him upright against Charles Johnson and the rest of the Panthers defense.

Johnson spent so much time in the backfield he should’ve worn an Atlanta jersey, finishing with 3 1/2 sacks. Ryan was hit 12 times after throwing and hurried on at least a half-dozen other attempts.

”The offensive line did a great job,” Ryan said, all evidence to the contrary. ”If you’re going to throw the football that far down the field, you need some time. The guys did a great job of pass protection, giving us time to throw it down there.”

Newton’s fumble ruined what had been a stellar performance. He threw for 215 yards, including a 17-yard touchdown to Greg Olsen early in the game, then a 36-yard scoring play to Kealoha Pilares that put the Panthers ahead 28-24 with 7:55 remaining.

Newton also ran for 86 yards on nine carries, bulling his way into the end zone from 4 yards out late in the third quarter.

The Panthers played much better than they did in their previous outing, a 36-7 home loss to the New York Giants, but it wasn’t enough to prevent them from sliding a daunting three games behind Atlanta in the NFC South.

”I want to apologize to my teammates and the fans that were watching out there,” Newton said. ”Everybody was doing their job. I clearly had the first down, but I’ve just got to hold onto the football.”

Ryan also connected on a 60-yard touchdown with Michael Turner, who took a screen pass right about the line of scrimmage and zigzagged down the field for the first scoring reception of his nine-year career.

DeAngelo Williams scored Carolina’s other TD on a 13-yard run.

Notes: The Falcons failed to score a TD on their opening possession for the first time this season, going three-and-out. Also, it was the first time the Panthers did not allow a touchdown on their opponent’s opening drive. … Nakamura had an early interception, but it was largely a day to forget for the Carolina free safety. He was beaten on both of White’s touchdown receptions, missed a tackle on Turner’s scoring play and had the ball snatched away by White on the long pass that set up the winning field goal. … Atlanta’s only other 4-0 start came in 1986.

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Giants WR Hakeem Nicks out for Eagles game (Yahoo! Sports)

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — The New York Giants will be without wide receiver Hakeem Nicks for Sunday night’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The team announced Saturday that Nicks will miss the contest because of a knee problem and will not make the trip to Philadelphia. He previously missed a Sept. 19 win over Carolina with a sore foot.

Coach Tom Coughlin has said Nicks developed swelling in his left knee after working out Thursday. It was his only expected practice for the game.

Nicks banged his knee making a catch against Tampa Bay.

The Giants will likely start either Domenik Hixon or Ramses Barden. Hixon missed the Carolina game with a concussion, but is probable this week. Barden picked up the start against Carolina and had career bests of nine catches and 138 yards.

NFL refs approve deal, ready for Sunday games (Yahoo! Sports)

IRVING, Texas (AP) — NFL officials ended their labor dispute with the league by approving a new eight-year contract with a 112-5 vote Saturday, then hustled off to the airport to get to work.

Next stop, stadiums around the country.

And, the officials hope, anonymity.

”The last Super Bowl that I worked, when we got in the locker room, I said, ‘You know, the best thing about this game, nobody will remember who refereed this game,”’ said Scott Green, president of the referees’ association. ”That’s how we like to work.”

The vote ended a labor spat that created three weeks of increasingly chaotic games run by replacement officials who drew criticism of everyone from the average fan to President Barack Obama.

”It was pretty much ‘Come on in and vote,”’ Green said. ”We’re going to talk football now. We’re going to stop talking about CBAs and lockouts and now we’re going to talk about rules and video and getting ourselves ready to work football games.”

They may get ovations similar to the one bestowed on the crew that worked Thursday’s Cleveland-Baltimore game with the tentative deal in place.

The referees met for about an hour and a half Friday night to go over the contract, then gathered for another 30 minutes Saturday morning before approving the contract.

”We are obviously pleased to hear it,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email to The Associated Press on Saturday.

Because they were aware of the financial parameters, most of the discussion by the referees involved non-economic issues such as year-round work and developmental squads, said Tim Millis, the association’s executive director.

The deal came together quickly this week after an increasing chorus of complaints became impossible to ignore when a disputed touchdown call on the final play gave the Seattle Seahawks a victory over the Green Bay Packers on national television Monday night.

Many thought the ruling of a Seattle touchdown instead of a Green Bay interception was botched, and the labor dispute drew public comments from Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

By late Wednesday, the sides had a contract calling for refs’ salaries to increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019. The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season or until the official earns 20 years’ service.

The defined benefit plan will then be frozen. Retirement benefits will be provided for new hires, and for all officials beginning in 2017, through a defined contribution.

Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option to hire a number of officials to work year-round. The NFL also can retain additional officials for training and development and assign those officials to work games. The number of additional officials will be determined by the league.

The officials that worked Thursday’s Ravens-Browns game were cheered from the moment they walked onto the field. The difference between the regular crew and replacements was clear. The officials kept the game in control, curtailing the chippy play and choppy pace that had marred the first three weeks of the regular season.

”I think the thing we’re most proud of is the lesson that we all learned,” Green said. ”If you’re going to be in a professional league, you’ve got top-notch coaches, you need professional officials as well.”

Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

NFL refs approve deal, scramble for Sunday return (Yahoo! Sports)

IRVING, Texas (AP) — NFL referees voted and approved a new eight-year deal with the league on Saturday. Now they all can get back to the business of calling games.

Referees approved the contract by a 112-5 vote, officially ending a lockout that led to a rising chorus of complaints from players, coaches, fans and politicians. The next stop for the refs who gathered in Irving, Texas, was the airport, where most were to hop on planes taking them straight to their Sunday game sites.

The deal came quickly after three weeks of escalating difficulties for league-hired replacement refs, culminating in a disputed touchdown call that decided Monday night’s Packers-Seahawks game. With a tentative deal in place, league referees returned to cheers at Thursday night’s game between Cleveland and Baltimore.

The tentative contract called for refs’ salaries to increase from an average of $149,000 a year in 2011 to $173,000 in 2013, rising to $205,000 by 2019. The current defined benefit pension plan will remain in place for current officials through the 2016 season or until the official earns 20 years’ service.

The defined benefit plan will then be frozen. Retirement benefits will be provided for new hires, and for all officials beginning in 2017, through a defined contribution arrangement.

Beginning with the 2013 season, the NFL will have the option to hire a number of officials to work year-round. The NFL also will be able to retain additional officials for training and development and can assign those officials to work games. The number of additional officials will be determined by the league.

Monday night’s game ended in chaos after replacement refs called a touchdown catch for the Seahawks instead of a Packers interception. Many fans and commentators – and players in the league – thought the call was botched. Criticism of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the league kept escalating, and the labor dispute drew public comments from both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. By late Wednesday, both sides had a deal.

”It’s all history now,” head linesman Tom Stabile said Friday. ”For us, it was a benefit. It may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Line judge Jeff Bergman said he could see Monday night’s play coming as he watched at home. He noticed that players were starting to take advantage of replacement officials struggling to keep control of the game.

”The last play of the game was something that was going to happen sooner or later,” Bergman said. ”It gave us and the league an opportunity to get together and hammer out a deal that was going to get hammered out anyway.”

Referee Ed Hochuli, who led weekly tests and conference calls for officials to stay sharp during the lockout, declined to say whether the replacements made the right call.

”You really don’t want to see that,” Hochuli said. ”You don’t want to see the controversy. You don’t want to see teams lose games that they shouldn’t have lost, if indeed that’s what happened. We’re not making a judgment on that.”

Now, the refs have to get used to being fan favorites.

The officials that worked Thursday night’s Ravens-Browns game were cheered from the moment they walked onto the field. The difference between the regular crew and replacements was clear. The officials kept the game in control, curtailing the chippy play and choppy pace that had marred the first three weeks of the regular season.

Officials on Friday said they were ready for applause – and ready for when it inevitably disappears.

”After the euphoria of the moment wears off, probably sometime early in the second quarter, it’ll be back to regular NFL football mode,” said referee Gene Steratore, who will head to Green Bay for Sunday’s game, one week after Packers players ripped the replacements over Monday’s disputed touchdown. ”Players will be questioning our judgment, our ancestry. Coaches will be screaming at us. And it’ll be life as back to normal on Sundays.”

Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Officials gather for contract ratification vote (Yahoo! Sports)

IRVING, Texas (AP) — NFL officials on the verge of approving a new contract say they’re excited to get back to work.

Officials started arriving Friday at a Dallas-area hotel to discuss and vote on an agreement reached with the league late Wednesday. Some planned to fly directly to their assigned cities for Sunday’s game.

The deal must be ratified by 51 percent of the union’s 121 members.

Some said they thought Monday night’s Packers-Seahawks game, which ended in chaos after a call in the end zone gave the Seahawks the winning touchdown instead of a Packers interception, provided the final push toward a settlement. Many fans commentators – and players in the league – thought the call was botched.

Monday night’s call brought the three-week furor over replacement officials to a fevered pitch.

”It’s all history now,” head linesman Tom Stabile said. ”For us, it was a benefit. It may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Line judge Jeff Bergman said he could see the play coming as he watched at home. He noticed that players were starting to take advantage of replacement officials struggling to keep control of the game.

”The last play of the game was something that was going to happen sooner or later,” Bergman said. ”It gave us and the league an opportunity to get together and hammer out a deal that was going to get hammered out anyway.”

Referee Ed Hochuli, who led weekly tests and conference calls for officials to stay sharp during the lockout, declined to say whether the replacements made the right call.

”You really don’t want to see that,” Hochuli said. ”You don’t want to see the controversy. You don’t want to see teams lose games that they shouldn’t have lost, if indeed that’s what happened. We’re not making a judgment on that.”

After three weeks of games marred by mistakes, the regular refs said they were heartened by the support they’ve received from fans, players and coaches – even if they don’t expect it to last very long now that they’re back.

”You’re not really beloved by the public. You’re tolerated. And to see that type of reception that our guys got last night was really heartwarming,” said Bergman, who will head to Green Bay for Sunday’s game, one week after Packers players ripped the replacements for calling Monday’s disputed play a touchdown.

”After the euphoria of the moment wears off, probably sometime early in the second quarter, it’ll be back to regular NFL football mode,” Bergman said. ”Players will be questioning our judgment, our ancestry. Coaches will be screaming at us. And it’ll be life as back to normal on Sundays.”

One crew returned to work Thursday night. Cheered from the moment they walked onto the field, the men in stripes ran a smooth and efficient game as the NFL’s lockout of officials came to an end with the Baltimore Ravens’ 23-16 win over the Browns.

”To just be applauded by 50,000 people prior to anything happening, it was something that kind of chokes you up,” referee Gene Steratore said. ”It was a very special feeling.”

AP Sports Writers Joseph White and Rachel Cohen and AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner contributed to this story.

Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL