On a day where the Falcons absolutely had to win to ensure they got into the playoffs, their defense came to play, showing all the flash and potency you’d expect from a unit lusting after a playoff spot. Through four quarters, the Falcons held a depleted Panthers offense to just 10 points, coming up with three interceptions, a couple of sacks, and several big run stops. It was a stellar effort, one that effectively won the game for Atlanta.
The offense and special teams, meanwhile, essentially did everything they could to keep this close. The Falcons’ special teams unit was penalized (I believe) three times, which helped to erase a nice Andre Roberts return, and the Falcons repeatedly settled for field goals after an inspiring opening drive. That left them up 22-10 when the dust settled—thank god for Matt Bryant—and in the playoffs. Seattle ultimately lost, which would have put Atlanta in regardless, but they didn’t have to back into the playoffs. That matters, in my opinion.
Now Atlanta needs to build on this solid effort to beat the intimidating Los Angeles Rams, genuinely one of the NFL’s better teams and better stories in 2017. With any luck, the win over the Panthers was a sign of things to come, but we still don’t know quite what to expect from these Falcons. We just know what to hope for.
On to the full recap.
- Matt Ryan had a few inaccurate throws and spiked one into the ground, but despite that he wound up having one of his most productive games of the season. He threw for over 300 yards, made some very strong throws to Devonta Freeman, Julio, Justin Hardy, and others, and evaded pressure from a very good Carolina front repeatedly. He didn’t put up the multiple touchdowns we all would have liked to see, but Ryan played very well. He has all year, with the results not always reflecting that, and it was nice to see him do well and get the W.
Also, this happened:
The case against Luke Kuechly as a great linebacker: getting faked out by Matt Ryan in the open field pic.twitter.com/61a0CZSbIe— Mike Tunison (@xmasape) December 31, 2017
- On a day where neither back had much success on the ground, Devonta Freeman still ate the Panthers alive through the air. Steve Sarkisian seems to have realized just how effective Free can be in the passing game, because he’s gotten him heavily involved each of the last couple of weeks, with terrific results. Freeman was again the team’s leading receiver in terms of receptions and yards, and he took multiple short passes for first downs thanks to his shiftiness and toughness. As the Falcons move into the postseason, you can expect Freeman to be perhaps the offense’s most integral player, even against a tough Rams team in Los Angeles.
- Julio Jones consistently picked up big yardage against the Panthers, continuing to play well against an improving secondary, including a spin move and run that left Daryl Worley reeling. Even his unremarkable days really are remarkable.
- Mohamed Sanu and Justin Hardy both work effectively over the middle of the field, and they combined for nine catches for over 100 yards, with Sanu doing the bulk of that work. If Taylor Gabriel is going to miss any time, both players will continue to be integral.
- Grady Jarrett is still a monster. Witness his beautiful run stop on a Cam Newton run, where he diagnosed the play, got in position, and dragged down perhaps the most physical quarterback in the entire NFL in the second quarter. Then he got a huge second down sack on Cam Newton with just over a minute to go in the second quarter, driving Newton backwards multiple yards.
- Vic Beasley sack!
- Robert Alford was a man possessed on Sunday. He had three pass breakups in the first half alone, getting his hands in front of some zippy Cam Newton throws and helping the Falcons defense limit Newton to exactly zero completions on his first ten tries. Then he also picked Newton off to cap off this game. He’s capable of truly terrific efforts, and sometimes those efforts wind up looking pretty spectacular.
- Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal also had interceptions against the Panthers, and both were nice plays. Neal’s was off a tipped pass and was the first of his career, while Allen finally got a pick that wasn’t called back by penalty, which was worth celebrating.
- Takk McKinley didn’t get any sacks, sure, but he consistently got pressure on Cam Newton and continues to look like perhaps the team’s nastiest pass rusher on a weekly basis. It’s scary to think about how good he might be a year from now.
- Matt Bryant is a superhero. Kickers his age should simply not be able to make the kicks he makes, including a slightly wobbly 56 yarder that put the Falcons up 19-10 in the fourth quarter. He is an unreal player, the best kicker Atlanta has ever had, and someone who is making a fringe case for the Hall of Fame with every week he continues to kick like a grizzled god.
- The Panthers had an off day, and for once, the Falcons didn’t muddle their way through it. They whupped the Panthers on one side of the ball and did good work on the other, albeit with some challenges, and won the game by double digits. It was a heartening effort.
- The offense started off brilliantly on their initial drive, scoring a touchdown, but they were quickly mired by poor line play and missed connections. After that first drive, they punted over and over again in the first half, squandering excellent defensive performances on many drives by not converting third downs and either having to punt or get Matt Bryant on the field.
- It is beyond time for the Falcons’ special teams to clean it up. They got hit with three penalties in the first two quarters alone, including one that erased an excellent Andre Roberts return and put the Falcons back near their own ten yard line. I don’t know if Keith Armstrong needs to go—I know that’s a popular notion in the fanbase—but I do know that special teams is a real problem, and a limiting factor for Atlanta on Sundays.
- I continue to worry about Dan Quinn’s in-game decision-making. His challenge of Greg Olsen’s catch, which was really not all that controversial, cost the Falcons a timeout that they could have used on their final offensive drive of the first half. He’s a great judge of talent and a master motivator, but there have been very few times in his first three seasons that I felt like he was making brilliant moment-to-moment calls. Overall, this was a good game, but those moments are still a concern.
Give this one to Matt Bryant, who scored 15 of the team’s 22 points, or give it to the defense as a whole, since they were so dominant. Either way, you can’t go wrong.
The Falcons can beat a playoff team, and handily, if the defense is firing on all cylinders. Stay tuned to see if that matters coming up.
The Los Angeles Rams, making it back to the postseason for the first time in a while, and hosting Atlanta next Saturday. Go to Turf Show Times to learn more about the Falcons’ Wild Card opponent.