The Falcons were at home against a reeling Panthers team, and in years past, this was a game they would’ve both lost and disappointed in. This year, though? Things have finally changed, though it got uncomfortably close late.
In this game alone, Matt Ryan set the single game passing yardage record, Julio Jones set the single game receiving yardage record, and the Falcons got their second straight win against a team that went to the Super Bowl just last year. There were lapses and errors, particularly for the defense, but you couldn’t have scripted a much more impressive effort on the offensive side of the ball, and it was more than enough to grab the win.
Atlanta was in control of this game more or less from the beginning, though they made things interesting late. The game got out of hand in the third quarter, when Matt Ryan went into ELITE MODE and started tossing touchdowns left and right. When the dust settled on that quarter, the Falcons were up 31-10, and while they let off the gas in a major way in the fourth quarter, they still managed to grab the win. They’re now 3-1, while the suddenly reeling Panthers are 1-3 and near the bottom of the NFC South. It’s fair to say very few of us expected this, and nearly all of us got mighty nervous when the Falcons let the Panthers get within eight.
Carolina simply doesn’t look like the team that took the league by storm a year ago, but it’s time to give Atlanta their due. Their defense is inconsistent and not great, as I’ve half-noted multiple times already, but they’re capable of strong stretches, and they have some fascinating young athletes in Deion Jones and Keanu Neal even without De’Vondre Campbell on the field. The offense, meanwhile, simply looks like one of the NFL’s best, and if they continue at their current pace they’re going to propel this team to a winning record and potentially a playoff spot. That’s getting way ahead of ourselves after a 3-1 start, but given the state of play across the NFL right now, I’m starting to believe this team may arrive before 2017.
The sour note and the caveat here comes from how the Falcons handled a huge lead, in that they let it get down to eight points before Matt Ryan’s beautiful 75 yard strike to Julio Jones. They won’t be able to afford to sit on leads against teams with more going on on offense, and hopefully they’ll learn exactly that from this effort. The defense is going to be a limiting factor the rest of the way, regardless, but that productive first half against Carolina makes you think there may be some upside here that’ll keep them from being abysmal.
I don’t have to tell you that regardless of how things go the rest of the way, it’s wise to give teams more than a year to gel. Dan Quinn has this defense playing aggressive football, even with their talent limitations, and Matt Ryan looks as comfortable in this system this year as he’s looked in any offense in the past. This is a growing football team with a high ceiling, and while they might not reach it this year, I’m as optimistic as I’ve been since 2012. Soak this one in for a while, because record-breaking wins don’t come along every day.
On to the full recap, with notes on top performers and the few ugly spots.
- Matt Ryan came into this game red hot, and by the time the first quarter was over, he was blazing blue. He began the game 8/8 for 133 yards and a touchdown, making beautiful throws all over the field and abusing the Panthers defense with the Julio Jones connection. If not for the tipped pick six in the second quarter, his first half line of 13/15, 204 yards, and a touchdown would’ve looked even more impressive. He finished the game with over 500 yards passing, which is a franchise record, and he hit Julio Jones a dozen times for 300 yards.
Ryan has simply never looked better. He has the protection, he has the options in the passing game, and he’s delivering on his part. We have no idea if he can keep this pace going, but right now he’s an early MVP candidate, and if the offense stays healthy he’s almost certainly going to deliver his finest season.
- Julio Jones had a quiet 2016 up until this week, but you can’t contain him forever. Against a young, patchwork Carolina secondary, Jones went off in a huge way, reeling in a ton of big catches en route to 300 yards, which is a franchise record and maybe the most amazing receiving performance I’ve ever seen. None were more impressive than his 75 yard touchdown late in the game, where he caught a relatively short pass and outran several defenders, but he’s a living highlight reel, and nearly all of his dozen catches showed his skill. The slow start to the season looks like a blip, to say the least, and Julio should be in for another legendary campaign.
- The Falcons didn’t lean on the run much in this one, considering Carolina sold out to stop it, but Devonta Freeman looked as strong as ever, busting out multiple 10-plus yard gains. Look for him to continue to assert himself against Denver.
- I predicted a big day for the Falcons’ tight ends, and while it didn’t come in the form of volume, both Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper scored. Hooper’s 42 yard touchdown grab in the fourth quarter was extremely impressive, and I still look forward to him starting next year.
- Taylor Gabriel came over to the Falcons as a waiver pickup, and he’s essentially become the third receiver in the pecking order, with 3 catches for 49 yards in this one. Aldrick Robinson chipped in in a major way, too, with a long touchdown bomb that shows why this receiving corps is so much better than last year’s.
- Dwight Freeney hasn’t lost a step, even if he hasn’t shown up on the stat sheet much. His big rush on third down on the first Panthers series forced a poor throw from Cam Newton, and he led a pass rush that actually put real pressure on Cam Newton (and to a lesser extent) Derek Anderson.
- Deion Jones has been truly impressive as a rookie, showing superior speed, tackling ability, and occasionally coverage chops. He got in Cam Newton’s head in this one, came up with a handful of key run stops, and smashed Newton on his successful two point conversion, though the fact that it caused a concussion is significantly less cool. The Jones-Newton rivalry might be a fun one for years.
- Robert Alford had two pass interference penalties in this one and one or two lapses in coverage, and I opined on Twitter that I felt like those mistakes were one of the big reasons the Falcons will allow him to walk in the offseason. They may very well do that, but Alford more than redeemed himself with a
- What a first drive for the offense. They targeted Julio Jones three straight times to open things up, Matt Ryan scrambled for a 15 yard gain, and Jacob Tamme caught a short touchdown pass to cap things off. The Panthers could not have been happy to start things off like that.
- Cam Newton did the Falcons a favor with his taunting penalty on the first drive, but credit the Falcons: They came out prepared to stop this Carolina team, and for two consecutive drives to start the game, they allowed one quick first down and then managed the drive kills.
- Vic Beasley is strangely effective against Cam Newton. In the second quarter, he dropped Cam Newton for a big three yard loss on third down on a scramble, forcing a punt. He’s looking a little better every week, though his breakout game still hasn’t come.
- Give Matt Bryant credit in a game that was dominate by the offense, too, because he had two field goals, including a 53 yarder.
- In typical Falcons fashion, the team shot themselves in the foot in a major way after carving out a 14-0 lead and getting a stop in the second quarter. Matt Ryan threw a short pas on 2nd and 5 that was tipped, intercepted, and run back for a pick six, getting the Panthers within a touchdown. It was a nice defensive play, but the window was tight, Atlanta probably should have been running, and they were backed up thanks to the Panthers downing the ball on the one yard line in the first place. Thankfully, that was basically the only major blip on the day.
- The Falcons do still need to clean up the penalties. Between Alford, Jake Matthews, and Andy Levitre, there were multiple 10-plus yard penalties that could’ve proven to be more costly if the team wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
- The Panthers caught fire a little bit (relatively speaking) late in the first half, managing a long field goal and putting the brakes on the high-powered Falcons offense. That’s how they managed to go into halftime down just a single score, but the Falcons still did an impressive job of containing the offense.
- The Panthers stacked the box frequently and dared Atlanta to run, and the Falcons took an inexplicable number of chances running the ball out of a shotgun formation, and it basically never worked. Devonta Freeman had some nice gains on the day, but it was certainly a quieter day for the run...which is why it was so good that the Falcons passed themselves out of any problems. Still, against particularly stout offenses, it might not be a bad idea to scrap that look.
- Special teams worked against the Falcons today. The Panthers were able to repeatedly down the ball inside the five yard line, limiting the Falcons in ways they should not have been limited. Thank goodness for the offense.
I’m going to split this one between Julio Jones and Matt Ryan. Both were truly stellar in this one, and you probably would not have enjoyed this victory unless both were working so well in tandem.
This offense is amazing. I have no words.
The Falcons have to travel on the road to Denver to face the Broncos, which will be inarguably the toughest test of the young season. Check out Mile High Report for much more.