The Atlanta Falcons knew that this was an important game. They needed to build on their road win against the Jets, and they needed to beat the Panthers to keep pace in the division. They came out like they wanted the game very badly, and then they collapsed in such epic, total fashion that it was impossible not to case believing in this team’s ability to win games against tough opponents in 2017. It was, in every way, that bad.
And then...they stopped. They scored a touchdown, closed the gap, and it seemed like they might actually do this thing against all odds. Instead, they fell just short again, and are now .500.
After their initial ten point outburst in the first quarter, they only scored once. Carolina, meanwhile, scored 20 unanswered points, thanks to a ground game that frequently dominated and the Falcons’ inability to do anything of consequence on offense. Steve Sarkisian, Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Austin Hooper...pick a person and they probably screwed up something significant in this one. The defense was lucky and good to hold Carolina to just 20 points, frankly, though had they been able to stop the run at any point in this game, especially in the third quarter, they might have been able to hang in better.
If you love carnage, here’s the drive-by-drive summary.
The Falcons got a 34 yard gain on their very first play from scrimmage, thanks to a nice pass from Matt Ryan to the always great Julio Jones. Then they got two straight penalties and a negative run to make it 2nd and 24, as the Falcons do. They got a 10 yard gain to Mohamed Sanu after a missed end zone strike with Julio, which gave Matt Bryant a shot at a field goal. He nailed the 53 yarder, and the Falcons had their first, early lead of the day.
Falcons 3 - Panthers 0
Carolina’s offense looked just about as inept as advertised on their first drive. They got a 1 yard pickup via Jonathan Stewart, Robert Alford knocked the ball out of Devin Funchess’s hands, and then Cam Newton scrambled for 8 yards on a play where Matt Kalil picked up a penalty. Punt.
The Falcons saw Andre Roberts fumble the punt and picked up a holding penalty on that punt return, so not ideal. Their next drive was even less ideal, as they ran twice with Tevin Coleman for three yards and then missed on a pass to Austin Hooper. Punt.
The Panthers got a quick first down after Cam Newton scrambled for one, but the very next play the Falcons forced a fumble that Keanu Neal scooped up, and Atlanta’s offense had the ball back.
Atlanta wasted little time getting moving, with a Devonta Freeman run, three quick, nice gains by Julio Jones, Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo, and then...well, a penalty on Wes Schweitzer. The Falcons hung in there, though, and Matt Ryan nailed Mohamed Sanu for a six yard touchdown pass. Two score lead!
Falcons 10 - Panthers 0
The Panthers were putting together a great drive subsequently, with two passes to Devin Funchess and then a 34 yard Cam Newton run. That was before Jonathan Stewart fumbled for a second time, with the ball being recovered by Desmond Trufant.
Unfortunately, after a 15 yard pass to start things off, the next drive went nowhere and the Falcons were forced to punt it away.
The Panthers capitalized on that lack of scoring on their next drive early, swiftly moving thanks to a nice Christian McCaffrey run and yet another productive Cam Newton scramble on third down. The drive did stall out, however, after the Falcons stopped up Jonathan Stewart and Newton couldn’t connect with Russell Shephard on third down.
The Falcons started from their own 3 yard line—Andre Roberts made the right call, but I hate starting from inside the 10—but Atlanta wasted little time getting moving. Devonta Freeman broke off a couple of nice runs, including a 20 yarder, and Austin Hooper picked up 16 yards before Taylor Gabriel got 13 yards on an end around to put the team close to field goal range. They blew it from there, however, with three straight runs up the middle falling short of a conversion, and a penalty on Austin Hooper on fourth down setting the Panthers up in nice field position.
The Panthers took advantage of the Falcons’ defense, which had been stellar up to this point, and got moving with an assist from a 15 yard penalty on Brian Poole. The Panthers would ultimately score on a four yard run by Christian McCaffrey, and a completely lopsided game swung into a close one, just like that.
Falcons 10 - Panthers 7
Matt Ryan connected with Julio Jones for a beautiful 24 yard gain on the first play of the next drive, but the following play was a ball intended for Austin Hooper that was intercepted, thanks to some combination of Hooper tripping and (from the look of it) running the wrong route. Panthers ball.
The Panthers predictably were able to make the most of it, given their starting field position. With over 30 seconds left, Cam Newton ran it into the end zone from nine yards out and gave the Panthers their first lead of the day.
Falcons 10 - Panthers 14
The Falcons kneeled their way into halftime, as meekly as can be.
The Falcons started things off the way they left them: Sloppy and frustrating. Two flags helped to keep the Panthers in motion as they ran through the Falcons defense, picking up 6-11 yards per carry. The Falcons sacked Newton twice—one was called back—but they still got easily into field goal range and Graham Gano hit it. Full touchdown lead.
Falcons 10 - Panthers 17
Atlanta’s next drive went nowhere. They got a nine yard pass to Derrick Coleman, but followed that up with no gain and then a missed deep shot to Austin Hooper. Another punt.
Carolina got things going with a 33 yard pass to Devin Funchess, and they were able to eat a lot of time and get into field goal range, even if they ultimately fell short. Gano did hit the field goal, though, and the Falcons were in a deeper hole.
Falcons 10 - Panthers 20
The Falcons got the ball back down ten and needing to do something, but after a Julio Jones reception for nine yards, Matt Ryan was sacked twice in a row and the Falcons had to punt yet again.
The Panthers got the ball back (hey, again) with a ten point lead and the need for a long, grinding scoring drive to finish off Atlanta. They didn’t get one, blissfully, after pulling down a single first down. Atlanta was able to get the stop and force a punt.
This was do or die for the Falcons, and they looked like they might do. They drove a fair way down the field before Matt Ryan launched a ball into the end zone on fourth down that...Julio Jones dropped. That was pretty much game, at that point. We do need to acknowledge that Matt Bryant was hurt, which undoubtedly led to this team being more aggressive, but man.
The Panthers managed one first down, but the Falcons defense clamped down yet again and forced a punt.
The Falcons started things off with a nine yard pass to Julio Jones, and were able to move the ball effectively, a 40 yard Taylor Gabriel pass followed by a 19 yard screen pass to Tevin Coleman that resulted in a touchdown. The Falcons were back on the board after a long, long time.
Falcons 17 - Panthers 20
The Falcons came out aggressive on defense and got two run stops and an incomplete pass on the next drive, forcing Carolina to punt.
Atlanta got a dumpoff from Matt Ryan, who was under pressure, and two straight missed passes to Julio Jones. Then, on 4th and 13, Ryan and Taylor Gabriel couldn’t connect, and that was that. You could have argued for—and many did argue for—a pass interference call, but without that, the Falcons were done.
The Panthers chewed up most of the clock effectively, and that was that. Game over.