Offensively challenged and defensively stellar, the Falcons fought Carolina like hell in this one, and the result was a needed win to bring Atlanta back into the playoffs for the second straight year.
The Falcons were awesome defensively on a day where Cam Newton was simply inaccurate and their ground game was pretty miserable. They harried Newton, made plays on the ball and came away with two interceptions, and showed off all the speed and physicality Dan Quinn dreamt of in 2015 when he took this job. It was one of their most impressive efforts of the season, regardless of what the Panthers were capable of doing on offense.
Offensively, the Falcons managed one impressive touchdown drive at the beginning of the game, followed by a series of drives that basically existed solely to get Matt Bryant into field goal range. Bryant ended up hitting five (five!) field goals, creating and preserving the Falcons’ lead throughout much of the day. I never thought we’d see the day when the Falcons defense was suffocating and the Falcons offense was doing just enough to push field goal drives, but here we are. As long as Atlanta wins, I don’t even mind.
This game also made it abundantly clear that Carolina wants no part of Atlanta in the playoffs, if it comes to that. The Falcons can slow down this passing attack without much trouble, they did a pretty good job of limiting Cam Newton’s runs, and their offense can work well enough to get them a lead their defense will ensure they don’t relinquish. There are no guarantees in life, but I imagine the Falcons could win again in a re-match, if that day comes.
The Falcons now head into the postseason with a tiny bit of momentum on their side, and they are clearly capable of beating even the best teams in the NFC if they can get both sides of the ball working. I have zero expectations for a deep playoff run, but it’s enough to know they’re there and capable of it, especially after the way this season unfolded.
If you want to re-live this game, check out our drive-by-drive summary below. Go Falcons!
A Devonta Freeman three yard run and a pass out of bounds to start for the Falcons, which wasn’t the most inspiring beginning. Thankfully, Matt Ryan then made a nice throw to Julio Jones over the middle to pick up the first down. The very next play went to Julio, too, but he took a big hit from safety Mike Adams, coughed up the ball, and had to head to the sideline. The Falcons picked up another first down with a great catch and run from Mohamed Sanu for 19. A couple of unproductive plays later, Matt Ryan hit Tevin Coleman with a beautiful throw for yet another first down. The Falcons capped things off with a nice grab by Devonta Freeman on a low throw, and he was able to rumble all the way in for a touchdown. The Falcons had an early lead.
Falcons 7 - Panthers 0
The Panthers, meanwhile, met with a fast and physical defense. The Falcons got pressure on Cam Newton twice and forced two incompletions, and got a tackle for loss on Carolina’s sole run play. That was a punt, with a Brian Poole hold on the return.
Atlanta got a couple of first downs on the next drive thanks to Julio Jones and Tevin Coleman, but it wasn’t enough, as they ultimately stalled out. Matt Ryan took a big shot on third down thanks to poor blocking on the left side of the line, and Atlanta had to punt it away.
The next drive started off poorly, with Cam Newton scrambling for a first down and Christian McCaffrey picking up another with two straight runs. Then Cam Newton threw three straight times, though, and Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant got three straight pass breakups to end the drive. Punt.
The Falcons had a killer play near the start of their next drive, with Devonta Freeman corralling a high throw to pick up a first down and then some. Unfortunately, things didn’t end as well, with a Matt Ryan third down hail mary to Julio Jones falling incomplete. Another punt.
The Panthers got a quick first down followed by a fumble they recovered, an out of bounds throw, and a 3rd and 14 that ended with yet another incomplete pass, plus a slightly late hit by Keanu Neal that didn’t get called at the beginning of the second quarter. Yet another punt.
The Falcons got a nice return that got called back, which put them deep in their own territory. They were unable to convert after Devonta Freeman got them to 3rd and 1, however, and had to punt again. Damontae Kazee ran into the returner on a fair catch, albeit accidentally, and the Panthers got quality field position.
They didn’t do anything with it. Cam Newton got hit, their ground game got bottled up, and there was yet another incompletion to make Newton 0/9 on the day. Punt.
The Falcons got the ball back and got a first down on two straight Tevin Coleman runs, followed by a Matt Ryan pass out of bounds. The Falcons got a Matt Ryan pass into the dirt and a pass under pressure that was too high for Mohamed Sanu, and they had to punt yet again. Punt party!
The Panthers didn’t get much going until Cam Newton evaded pressure and picked up a first down with his legs, but on the subsequent play he tried to run again and Grady Jarrett hit him for a loss of two. Newton was able to hit Greg Olsen for what looked like a first down on third and long, and after review, that held up. The Panthers got a Dontari Poe hold for another first down, a good gain by Fozzy Whitaker, and they were close to scoring. Two straight stuffs from the Falcons defense brought it to fourth and short, but Cam Newton converted and the Panthers had another shot. They got driven backwards on a Christian McCaffrey carry for a two yard loss and a Grady Jarrett sack of Cam Newton, but they hit Brenton Bersin for a 27 yard gain (somehow) and got a first down. Newton hit Devin Funchess over the middle for a touchdown, and that was a tie game.
Falcons 7 - Panthers 7
Atlanta had no timeouts, thanks to some questionable usage, and the Falcons tried to make a drive of it regardless. Devonta Freeman and Austin Hooper each picked up some yardage to bring the Falcons to midfield, and Atlanta was just hoping to get Matt Bryant a shot at the end zone. They got a big gain from Austin Hooper over the middle, but couldn’t spike the ball fast enough, and it was halftime.
After a lousy call on special teams backed them up again, the Falcons got into the business of rolling, primarily thanks to Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and Justin Hardy. Ryan found success targeting those two guys en route to a series of first downs. Then Ryan hit Mohamed Sanu for what should have been a touchdown if not for a butt/leg, and the Falcons had a 3rd and 10 from the 12, and Ryan couldn’t connect with Hardy. The Falcons still got the lead, though, off a Matt Bryant field goal the man could make in his sleep.
Falcons 10 - Panthers 7
The Panthers picked up six yards on two rushes, but then Cam Newton threw a deeply unfortunate (for him) interception to Ricardo Allen, who was overdue to grab one that wasn’t called back. That put Atlanta in an excellent position to score.
In very Falcons fashion, after a quick strike to Mohamed Sanu that picked up 12 yards, Atlanta fizzled out and had to settle for the field goal. Better than nothing, but not the critical touchdown they needed.
Falcons 13 - Panthers 7
The Panthers got a first down, but swiftly ran out of momentum and had to punt it away. The Falcons were rolling at this point.
They continued to roll on the subsequent drive, with Ryan connecting on throws to Justin Hardy and Mohamed Sanu (and a late hit penalty on the Panthers) to bring them pretty close to the end zone. The Falcons, being the Falcons, made their way leisurely to 3rd and 10 from the 22 or so. A Mohamed Sanu catch that went nine yards set them up for a 30 yard field goal from Matt Bryant, which he hit with ease. That was his third of the game.
Falcons 16 - Panthers 7
(The previous drive occurred partially in the fourth quarter, sorry, I was busy).
The Panthers really needed to respond, but a short run and a fumbled handoff set them up to fail. Unfortunately for Atlanta, Devin Funchess made a nice catch down the field on Desmond Trufant. The Falcons’ defense stiffened up again, though, and the Panthers were forced to go for a field goal that Graham Gano hit without much trouble.
Falcons 16 - Panthers 10
The Falcons wanted to salt it away, and they got moving thanks to nice catch and runs from both Julio and Freeman, which brought them to about the Carolina 35. The Falcons did a Falcons thing and stalled out, including getting backed up six yards on a sack on third down, but Matt Bryant hit the 56 yarder to extend the team’s lead. Of course he did.
Falcons 19 - Panthers 10
Carolina ran into huge roadblock in the form of the Atlanta defense, which swarmed Cam Newton and forced him to make throws he didn’t want to make, and to scramble once for a minimal gain. Newton just wasn’t having a great game at this point, and he missed a wide open Greg Olsen on third down. Punt.
The Falcons needed to use up some clock and maybe pick up a field goal to win, but they couldn’t quite do it. Mohamed Sanu dropped a third down catch that was a touch behind him, and the Falcons punted again.
On the very first play of the next Carolina drive, Newton threw a high ball to Greg Olsen that Deion Jones got a hand on, and Keanu Neal intercepted it and ran it back to the 20 or so. That gave Atlanta a chance to put it away.
They picked up a couple of short gains, ran it again on third and five to get it close to a first down, and got Matt Bryant back on the field. He hit the short field goal (of course), and the Falcons extended their lead yet again.
Falcons 22 - Panthers 10
Carolina drove down with no timeouts and very little hope to win, but they did finally move the ball effectively, getting into the red zone with a series of short passes before a Greg Olsen false start stopped things with 21 seconds left. Then there was another false start. Then Cam Newton threw it to the end zone, and Robert Alford snagged Atlanta’s third pick of the day to seal the win for Atlanta. A beautiful effort by the defense to win the game, and the Falcons were playoff bound.