CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Leading up to their Week 14 matchup with the Panthers, the Falcons had dealt with about as much criticism as any 11-1 division champion could expect to receive. Given that Atlanta's been winning most of its games by close margins and playing some very imperfect football, many have been doubting—rightfully so—if this team has finally evolved into a true contender.
In what should have been an easy victory against a lowly Panthers squad, the Falcons gave their skeptics exactly what they've been waiting for: an embarrassing defeat at the hand of a mediocre opponent.
A Head-Scratching Loss
Atlanta fell to Carolina at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, losing by the score of 30-20. While the Falcons have had plenty of gut-wrenching losses in their 40+ year history in the NFL, this one is particularly difficult to describe in words.
“Ridiculous … maybe?’’ Tony Gonzalez said after the game.
Panthers Jump Out Front Early
After a brutal showing from the defense and an inability to score in the first 40 minutes of action, the Falcons found themselves down 23-0 in the third quarter—a deficit that proved to be too much to overcome.
"I think every week we talk about wanting to start fast and we didn’t do a good job with that today," Ryan said. "I give Carolina credit. They came out and they played really well and regardless of who you’re playing, in this league if you let somebody jump out to an early lead it’s tough to overcome that."
Atlanta did claw its way back and make it a 10-point game with 53 seconds left on a Michael Turner touchdown, but it was too little too late.
“It better be a bump in the road, if we’re the team we think we are,’’ Gonzalez said. "I can hear them right now. They’re getting off the bandwagon. I can hear them jumping off. But that’s how it goes. And looking at our history, a lot of people are going to say, 'Well, see, I told you' and whatever."
Panthers Live Up to Smith's Expectations
Even though the outcome of this game was surprising to most, the Falcons knew it wasn't going to be a cakewalk. Despite their record, Coach Smith called the Panthers a very dangerous football team earlier in the week. Turns out, they are who he thought they were.
“They were much better than us today," Smith said. "They beat us in all three phases. We couldn’t sustain drives on third down offensively. We couldn’t even come close to getting them off the field on third downs (defensively).
"I thought we had a very good week of practice," Smith added. "(Carolina) played well and we didn’t play up to our standards. Again, my hat is off to them. That’s a good football team. We had a good battle over there in Atlanta and they were definitely better today.”
Cam Newton Shines
One of the biggest keys for Mike Nolan's defense was containing Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. Atlanta's inability to do so was the biggest difference-maker on Sunday.
Newton finished the day with nine carries for 116 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown run, which staked the Panthers to that 23-0 lead early in the third. Additionally, the Auburn alum was efficient with his arm: passing for 287 yards and two TDs.
“It’s a tough scheme to stop," said defensive lineman Corey Peters. "We’ve got to get back to the drawing board and do a good job. We had some spurts where we were OK in the second half. But, for the most part, we have to do a better job across the board.”
Falcons Not Ready to Panic
While losing to the Panthers has raised some eyebrows and created some apprehension regarding the Falcons' Super Bowl prospects, they can still finish the regular season as the top seed in the NFC conference and earn home field advantage throughout the playoffs. Almost every team in the history of the NFL—whether it be a bottom-dweller or one the league's elite—has an off game here and there; Atlanta simply picked an awful time to fall apart.
Now it's time to pick up the pieces.
“We’re in a position in our season where we’ve got everything right in front of us, and we need to get back to work and worry about that,” Ryan said.
The Birds will have a chance to redeem themselves next week when the New York Giants visit the Georgia Dome.
"We have an opportunity to play against a great team coming in: the Super Bowl champs," said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. "We’ll just work harder. We’ll learn from the mistakes. We’ll go in tomorrow, watch it and try to learn from it. We made a lot of mistakes. It was uncharacteristic of us, but ultimately we just have to move on.”