When I first started the idea of this series of write-ups, it was aimed at quelling the emotion in favor of logic and a "step back" view. My hope is to provide a realistic sense of where the team is really at, by neither over celebrating a win or over emphasizing a loss. But to be honest, this loss hurt.
I always expect divisional games to be hard fought, and often tight games. Even against the worst team in the division (and maybe the NFL), you are always going to get a handful. And the Carolina Panthers delivered it in spades.
The truth is this: the Falcons are still 11-2 and in the drivers seat for post-season positioning. And while the loss was an ugly one (though not as ugly as what the Pats did to the Texans), it was only one loss. It was - for this season - an outlier. The overall trend of this team has been winning, so it's not time to write this team off as one and done in the playoffs. However, there have been some trends of late that will need to be addressed before the playoffs come around.
The defense was obviously tired and though they put up a good effort in the third quarter, it was apparent in the fourth that they were out of gas. The first round bye will benefit this group the most, as the games against the Bucs and Saints seemed to wear them down. Given their great performance the past several weeks, a drop off was not surprising. Additionally, Cam just seems to cause our defense fits - he could be the lone kryptonite for this d.
The offense is where most of my concerns lay, and it's getting harder to ignore the issues that came to the surface on Sunday. First, let's get this out of the way: Michael Turner should not be the starter anymore. He is our version of Jerome Bettis. While we appreciate his contributions the past several years, he should be limited to goal line or end of game snaps. JaQuizz is clearly better suited for this offense and is a far more explosive and dynamic runner. It's not even close anymore.
Second, the interior of our OLine has regressed. While Clabo and Baker are not pro-bowlers, they have played at a sufficient level for most games. However, the past several games have shown a clear regression on the interior - with the stalwart Mud Duck being manhandled the most. He's not only not getting a push, he's consistently getting pushed back into the pocket. This is taking away the area a QB needs to step into his throws. Additionally, Konz has been up and down, as you would expect out of a rookie. He's had some very good moments, but has also been beat quite a few times. And let's not even get into the issue of run blocking.
That said, once Matt Ryan was allowed to run the no huddle and operate as a true "pass first" team - they had no problem moving the ball. The offense was able to pick up yards and big chunks and the Ryan dictated tempo had the Panthers D on their heels. Held to a little over 40 yards in the first half, Ryan racked up nearly 300 in the second half alone. Which makes the conservative "Turner up the middle" play-calling of the first half all that more infuriating. This offense CAN score when it wants to, but there is an identity crisis happening on the sidelines - and it's time for it to be over. Coach Smith has been hesitant to call this a pass first team - instead preferring to call it a "scoring team" - which would indicate that Smith is perhaps not fully in favor of passing first.
The frustrating thing about this game is not that a bad team beat us (don't let the record fool you, they are not that bad) - it's that our team is clearly able to play at high levels on both sides of the ball. The five interceptions against Brees was not a fluke. The 300 yards of passing in the 2nd half against the Panthers was not a fluke. These things are just not all coming together at the same time and it finally cost us a game.
This team CAN be successful in the playoffs, so long as both sides of the ball show up for all four quarters. Thankfully, this is a regular season game and our 11-2 start will get us an additional week of rest that could make all the difference. But if the team that played the first half shows up for the playoffs, we'll all be in for a long, long off season.