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Falcons vs. Panthers Week 16 recap: The best game of the season ends the Panthers' perfect season

The Falcons end the Panthers' undefeated streak at 14

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Very few of us expected the Falcons to win this game, and most of us knew enough to be content with a solid effort. The 2015 Atlanta Falcons still have a few surprises left in them, though, and they ended Carolina's 14 game winning streak in the best game they've played this year, a supremely gutsy 20-13 win in the Georgia Dome. The Panthers are undefeated no longer, and the Falcons are hapless no longer.

Atlanta will now not finish below .500, they put together a gutsy, signature win against one of their hated, undefeated rivals, and they did so after losing 38-0 to this same team just two weeks ago. I suggested on Twitter yesterday that this makes the entire season worthwhile, and while that might be hyperbole, it's the kind of win that points to a brighter future in Atlanta. Players like Julio Jones, Vic Beasley, Ra'Shede Hageman, and Devonta Freeman who figure to be such a huge part of this team's future were major players yesterday, and that's encouraging. More than anything else, though, I just enjoyed seeing this team win.

The Falcons are now very clearly out of the playoffs, which means we can put that story line to bed today, and looking ahead to 2015. One game (and hopefully one win) remains, and then we're left to consider the long offseason once more, with the hope that it will bring better for our Falcons. At the least, the Falcons will head into that offseason with the knowledge that they beat an undefeated team, and that there's at least a handful of promising pieces on this team.

On to the full game recap.

The Good

  • The offense was moving on the very first drive, though they needed a Charles Tillman penalty to bail them out initially. The drive featured nice catches by Roddy White and Justin Hardy, a productive Matt Ryan scramble, and a couple of nice, tough runs for Devonta Freeman. Considering the Falcons were shut out last time around, this was a godsend, and they did just enough on offense today to win, despite inept performances from the offensive line.
  • You wanted a gimpy Matt Ryan to look deep? YOU GOT IT.

    Ryan's long pass to Julio Jones came with an insanely acrobatic grab from Julio Jones, coverage from Luke Kuechly, and represented the Falcons' first lead of the football game. In one fell swoop, it seemingly obliterated the myth that Ryan can't throw deep, the idea that the Panthers are uniquely equipped to hold Julio Jones in check, and my glass, which I smashed cheering.
  • Julio was a monster yesterday against his prime nemesis, Josh Norman, and the Panthers had no answer for one of the best receivers in football. He finished with nine receptions for 178 yards and a touchdown.
  • It was a gutsy, productive game for Roddy White, who figured to see his season get a little better, but was certainly no lock to be making crucial 17 yard third down grabs in what amounts to the Falcons' playoffs. Tremendous game for the reigning best receiver in franchise history, and it's great to see him involved in the offense.
  • The Falcons ginned up some legitimate pressure on the Panthers' second drive, forcing Cam Newton to toss the ball away twice and forcing a three and out after a little bit of work. Ra'Shede Hageman was a giant on that drive, pushing his way into the backfield twice.
  • Good coverage enabled a sack that Jonathan Babineaux and Kroy Biermann split, and Vic Beasley was able to stop Cam Newton for a couple of short gains instead of long, first down runs.
  • It was Vic Beasley's finest game of the season by far, as he held Cam Newton to short yardage multiple times and then came up with the game-deciding sack of Newton, one that resulted in a fumble. He's got a bright future with a repaired labrum, I think.
  • Heck, the defense in general did a better job than anticipated, particularly after collapsing badly on the first drive of the game. They consistently held the Panthers to field goal tries and forced punts just two weeks after surrendering a ton of points.
  • Shayne Graham had an ugly miss, but his two field goals were the difference for Atlanta on Sunday, and he's been solid as a street free agent. I don't think he's coming back, but he shouldn't be out of the NFL in 2016.

The Ugly

  • The pass protection had a tough matchup, of course, but they did not in any way rise to the challenge. Matt Ryan was tripped by his own linemen, sacked multiple times, and just generally harried by a quality defense that treated much of the line like it wasn't even there. It'll be a focal point this offseason for the Falcons' brass, seemingly for the seventh season in a row. That became extremely costly when Mike Person, who has had these issues throughout the season, appeared to botch a snap that led to a fumble that led to a Panthers recovery. Person's TWO penalties on the final Falcons offensive drive could have been costly, too.

    Expect the Falcons to turn over at least two interior linemen in order to boost the offense.
  • The Falcons' defense had as much trouble early with the Panthers as they did the last time around, sadly, routinely letting guys get open, allowing long runs, and failing miserably to tackle Cam Newton when he elected to hoof it. It was amazing they held the Panthers to seven points as long as they did, considering how inept the defense looked for stretches. Then the ship was righted, of course.
  • Shayne Graham's field goal was an absolute duck, albeit one that might have had a hand on it. His perfect streak ended at the worst possible moment.
  • The Falcons just have a lot of work to do. It seems strange to write that after a win like this, but you could still see the cracks on the offensive line, in the secondary, and occasionally in the receiving corps today, even if the overall effort was tremendous. We'll hope they get it done this offseason and can at least make a strong playoff push in 2016.

The Wrapup

Game MVP: Julio. He absolutely beasted in this game, and there's no one else in the conversation as a result.

Theme Song: That song about victory. You know the one.

One Takeaway: The Falcons aren't great, but they were good enough yesterday to beat an undefeated Panthers team, and that's mighty encouraging.

Next Week: The Falcons take on the Saints, of course, to cap off the season. Check out Canal Street Chronicles for more.

Final Word: Yaywinningwoohoo!