The Falcons knew the stakes. Win and you're in the playoffs, lose and you're headed home with the possibility of a thorough housecleaning. That knowledge, potent as it was, could not save the team from an ugly loss to Carolina in the Georgia Dome, a loss that will likely close the book on the Mike Smith and perhaps Thomas Dimitroff eras. For more on that angle, you can check in with Alec Shirkey's article from an hour ago, and I'd highly recommend you do so.
I braced for the possibility that the Falcons might lose this game, because the Panthers had improved and the Falcons were far from guaranteed the win. For all that, I fully expected them to at least put together a hard-fought loss, and I truly believed a win was on the table for this team. They had played better, after all, and there was so much to lose if they came out flat. The brutal nature of the loss made the game wrenching to watch, but I suppose it's a fitting eulogy for the highs and lows of the best run in Falcons history, a run that went from enjoyable to ruinous in class Falcons fashion.
Every one of the team's weaknesses had been masked to some extent in recent weeks, as the team went 2-2 and cobbled together strong performances. Against the Panthers, the offensive line was awful, Matt Ryan made a couple of key mistakes, the receivers disappeared for long stretches and the defense couldn't do enough to overcome that, though they were definitely better than they were early in the season. When you mix that particularly pungent stew, you see the slew of alterations that lie ahead, and while the disappointment remains bitter, looking ahead gives us some small solace.
Regardless of where the Falcons go from here, we're headed for an offseason of change, and unfortunately we can no longer fall back on "let's just see what happens next week." All any of us care about at this point is whether or not those changes bring improvement, and we'll have to hope they do. The Panthers, meanwhile, break the streak of non-consecutive NFC South champions, and will head to the playoffs as the #4 seed. We'll try to pick up the pieces here and see what's ahead, and I want to heartily thank all of you for reading and supporting us all season long. Much love to you.
On to the individual performances. I hope you'll stick with us all offseason long for our coverage of the 2015 offseason.
- Devin Hester's electric returns came infrequently in 2014, but they were always spectacular and always valuable. In this one, he finished off the first quarter with a broken tackle and burst of speed that carried him to the Panthers' 35 yard line with the Falcons down by 10. It just wasn't enough.
- We now know the final outcome of the season, and can start looking forward to what 2015 will bring. I know that's a sour note in many ways, but it's the best we've got.
- In a season with a handful of truly ugly picks, Matt Ryan threw arguably his most costly pass in the second quarter. Under pressure, he threw a pass that sailed past Roddy White and into the waiting hands of Roman Harper, who returned it for a touchdown to put the Panthers up 17-3.
Then Ryan threw another pick six later in the game, one that turned what was already a certain loss into an even more painful one. If there was ever any doubt that the 2014 season would be Ryan's Waterloo, that one erased the notion.
I've said this before and I will repeat the statement as many times as necessary: Matt Ryan is an excellent quarterback, albeit not one of the handful of best in the NFL. At times like these, that can seem like an insurmountable obstacle, but with a better team around him, Ryan can win. It's now fairly obvious that the team needs to be significantly better than it was in 2014, though.
- The ground game did nothing until it was too late, with Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman struggling to get anything going against the Panthers front seven. Some of this traces back to blocking up front, but you know the run was a liability when you find yourself actively pining for Steven Jackson.
- Patrick DiMarco's costly drop on a potential touchdown pass didn't doom the Falcons, but it was one in a series of bad plays by this team, and one of the most glaring examples of how this went badly wrong early for the offense.
- The Roddy White fumble and subsequent facemask on the offense led to an easy Cam Newton touchdown, which put the Panthers up by three scores early. I hated this game.
- The offensive line was able to hold up and even play well throughout the second half of the season despite injuries and lack of talent. This game saw that collapse into a sad pile of ash, with the line surrendering nearly constant pressure and several sacks on Ryan. That was a key factor in the offense's crushing ineptitude, and the worst part is that it was so heavily driven by injuries that you can easily look back and wonder what might have been.
- The defense was biting hard early. The Panthers were aggressive about attacking the defense, trying to create doubt about their intentions, and it led to some big plays and a near huge play for Kelvin Benjamin, who dropped a pass in his hands.
In a critical, final game against a familiar opponent, the defense was simply overmatched right off the bat. There will now be an offseason dedicated to preventing that from happening again, and we have to hope it will be successful.
- Special teams was a strength for the Falcons all season. Aside from that Matt Bryant field goal and Hester's one terrific return, it was not yesterday.
- This whole team, in a do-or-die situation, managed to lose by 31 points in the fourth quarter against a division rival they beat earlier in the season on the road. There's nothing uglier than that, and nothing that quite illustrates the scope of the problem like the margin of defeat, no matter how improved the Panthers were.
This team can be at least decent again in 2015, and perhaps a true contender in 2016 and beyond, if they play their cards right. I'm actually optimistic, despite the gloomy notes here, and the change that is ahead is welcome. Just sucks to lose like that to cap off a difficult season.
Game MVP: None. I can't, in good conscience, give out an award after a game like that.
Theme Song: Per the suggestion of our good friend on Twitter, here's your song.
@TheFalcoholic Boyz II Men "it's so hard to say goodbye" has to be the song dedication to Smitty in the post-game write-up, no?— Swaggy PhD (@Das_ProfX) December 28, 2014
One Takeaway: The Falcons are finished in 2014, and Mike Smith likely is too. Sort through your feelings about that as you will.
Next Week: The yawning maw of the 2015 offseason, with a great deal of unknowns hurtling toward us in the very near future.
Final Word: Adisappointingend.
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