There was a moment, in the third quarter, where everything seemed on the cusp of coming undone.
The Falcons had just allowed Cam Newton to march down the field and toss a short touchdown pass against them, and they were down 17-14. The third quarter malaise that has plagued the team all year long reared its ugly head, with the Falcons unable to do anything of substance. It looked like the same ol' second half Atlanta Falcons.
Then a funny thing happened in the fourth quarter: The Falcons dropped 17 points on the hapless Panthers, who after an admirable effort through the first three completely imploded. Cam Newton threw two picks, the defense was unable to contain a potent Michael Turner and that was it. The Falcons ended up winning, 31-17.
This was a big win for any number of reasons, chief among them that the Falcons are now 3-3 heading into a very difficult game against the Detroit Lions next weekend. With the Buccaneers winning today, the Falcons are now in sole possession of second place and still in the thick of things in the NFC South, just a game down. It also proved that the Falcons could put together at least three good quarters, something that was in doubt as recently as this morning.
That should buoy our spirits for a week, and it gives the Falcons a shot in the arm. After the jump, we'll break down some individual performances.
- Matt Ryan did his best impression of a game manager, with a couple of deep passes sprinkled in. One of those went to Harry Douglas for 34 yards, while the other drew a pass interference call for Roddy White. He ended up 14-22 for 163 yards and a touchdown in a more or less mistake-free performance.
Given that the Falcons came in planning to run and did so, this was a quality, workmanlike performance. I'll certainly take it.
- Michael Turner was a beast. At one point, when he picked up Sione Fua and threw him aside as if he were nothing but a rag toy, it became clear that he was headed for a fantastic day. He finished with 27 carries for 139 yards and two touchdowns. When you consider that he lost about 10 yards on a handful of his carries, it could have been even more amazing.
Even though I'd concede that Turner looks a bit slower every season, he's still plenty fast and he's lost little of his power. Against bad run defenses--the Panthers and upcoming games against the Lions and Colts both qualify--Turner is a dynamo. He was the Falcons' best player in this game, and it wasn't particularly close.
- The offensive line deserves huge props. They kept Ryan on his feet, limiting a potent Panthers pass rush to one sack. They opened holes for Turner. I've said before that the line has been improving incrementally every week, and they took another step forward here. Even if Sam Baker once again sampled from a buffet of mistakes.
- Harry Douglas did well in his limited opportunities, something that made Mike Smith single him out for praise after the game. His two catches for 57 yards were both good, they showed Ryan could throw a deeper pass and they may have set HD for a bigger role down the line.
- Tony Gonzalez had a couple of clutch grabs...as usual.
- Speaking of clutch, Matt Bryant hit his lone field goal try and all four extra points. Nothing unusual.
- Matt Bosher was markedly better. He boomed a couple of touchbacks, averaged 43 yards on his three punts and put two of those inside the 20. The Falcons endured a lot of growing pains with Bosher, but hopefully he's gone from a pimply, noodle-legged teenager to a productive member of Georgian society.
- On a day when the pass rush was inconsistent, Ray Edwards and Stephen Nicholas came up with a pair of big sacks. Edwards now has sacks in back-to-back weeks, and Nicholas is quite simply one of the most underrated players on the Falcons today.
- Corey Peters has the play of the game, reeling in a one-handed interception off of a Cam Newton screen pass. Newton's errors were a huge factor in the Falcons' win, and none were bigger than the team's hulking defensive tackle picking that pass. Big ups to the big man.
- Brent Grimes had magnetic hands. His pick in the end zone arguably changed the course of the game. If the Panthers had been able to score there, there's a little more desperation in the Falcons' offense and more chances for mistakes. Grimey, as usual, came through.
- Thomas DeCoud finished the game off with a pick, as well. He's been maligned for his coverage at times this year, but he's also had a nose for the ball. And a pair of hands, for that matter.
- Overall, the defense made big plays when it counted. I'm going to nitpick them in a bit, but it has to be acknowledged that they were able to force turnovers when they needed to late in the game.
- Roddy White basically disappeared. He drew a couple of huge pass interference penalties, which deserves some praise, but he finished the game with two catches for 21 yards and had a costly, boneheaded penalty earlier in the game. It hasn't been a particularly disciplined season for White so far, and I'm not entirely sure why.
That said, Chris Gamble's a pretty good corner. I'm not going to carve a headstone for his career.
- Sam Baker is still making stupid mistakes. He was better this game, but I do wish he would stop that.
- The defense struggled to contain Cam Newton up until the end of the game. To these eyes, that had a lot to do with an inconsistent pass rush and the soft zone that Brian Van Gorder loves so much. They gave Steve Smith & Co. so much room to operate, and it cost them more than once.
That said, holding the Panthers to 17 points? Pretty nice.
- I don't really have anything else to complain about. How refreshing is that?
Game MVP: No-brainer. Michael Turner was a Touchdown Vampire and a Yardage Zombie. He gets it.
Game Theme Song: I'm going to Hall & Oates. My optimism has been at least partially restored.
One Thing To Take Away: The Falcons can play a complete football game. Yes!
Next Week: The Detroit Lions and their coach, Swingin' Jim Schwartz. Check out Pride of Detroit for more.
Final Word: Awin!