Falcons vs. Panthers: Three Pivotal Plays

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This is particularly painful edition of Three Pivotal Plays.

Sunday was a sad day for the Falcons, and for Falcons fans. With a win, the Falcons could have managed to cling to some tiny sliver of hope that their season could still turn around. With a loss to the Panthers, according to Football Outsiders, Atlanta officially has a .1% chance of making the playoffs in the last wildcard spot, and that's it. Cue up the Dumb and Dumber gifs.

While this is not a fun edition of Three Pivotal Plays, it's a necessary one. Matt Ryan is under a lot of scrutiny after turning in uncharacteristically poor performances in each of the last two weeks, and while Ryan's four interceptions were not the only reason the Falcons lost to the Arizona Cardinals, the three picks he threw against the Panthers were the most significant factor in the Falcons' loss on Sunday.

On Ryan's first interception, it was second down and nine yards to go on the Atlanta 28 yard line. Tony Gonzalez was double-covered with a safety coming in from the backfield to help, Ryan takes the snap in shotgun formation, and his pass protection was okay. Gonzalez tried to juke his coverage, and then headed toward the middle of the field on a classic Tony Gonzalez route.

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Gonzalez is only in double coverage when Ryan releases the ball, but both Carolina players, particularly linebacker Luke Kuechly, have great position on Gonzalez.

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There's pick number one on the day. Carolina would turn the interception into a touchdown drive, giving them a 7-0 lead early in the game.

On Ryan's second interception, Ryan takes the snap under center. The Falcons have Stephen Jackson and Patrick DiMarco in the backfield. I have to say, the shadows on the field are really distracting, and perhaps that was part of the problem for Ryan. The Panthers have eight guys near the line of scrimmage, preparing for a possible run since Jackson is in the backfield.

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Ryan drops back to pass, and pressure is coming. You can see that, as Ryan prepares to release the pass, Harry Douglas has blue jerseys all around him.

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It looked like Ryan might have had a difficult time seeing from the sunny to the shaded side of the field, and he was under pressure, but this was generally just not a great decision. Ryan also had fullback Patrick DiMarco open for a lateral. It was just first down, so even a short gain would have been okay. Pushing the deep pass to Douglas was unnecessary and risky.

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The Panthers just had a 17-10 lead at that point, and while they did not score on the ensuing drive, this interception kept Atlanta from narrowing their point deficit and staying competitive in this game.

On Ryan's third interception, the Panthers led 24-10 with 8:39 remaining in the game. It wasn't a great position to be in, down two scores with time ticking away in the fourth quarter, but the Falcons had adequate time to launch a comeback.

Ryan takes the snap out of the shotgun. His pocket is clean, and he has a very quick release with a pass intended for Drew Davis. Cornerback Drayton Florence is just sitting on the route waiting to jump it, and that's just what he does, for a pick six.

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The resulting touchdown put the game pretty much out of reach for the Falcons, even by the most optimistic standards.

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With the exception of games against the Cardinals and the Panthers, Ryan has been exceptional this season. Despite only securing two wins this season, Ryan's passing offense is ranked fifth in the league for yards per game, and Ryan has 15 passing touchdowns on the season. Seven of Ryan's ten interceptions in 2013 have come from the last two games, and based on how directly his three interceptions against the Panthers contributed to the loss last Sunday, it's an issue that must be resolved for Ryan.

What were your three pivotal plays of last Sunday's game?

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