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Falcons vs. Panthers recap: Late in the year, Atlanta’s finally winning

Too little, too late, but entertaining nonetheless.

Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Falcons are way past the point where winning leads to any meaningful outcomes from a win/loss perspective or in the sense of actually competing for the playoffs, and they only hurt their draft stock with victories. But with a pretty easy slate at the end of the year and the pressure off, the Falcons have been absolutely cruising these last two weeks, and they appear to be enjoying themselves.

Again, the implications of this aren’t real clear, except on the draft front. The Falcons may still wind up with a top ten pick—they have #10 right now—but they certainly did their damage to their draft stock by winning. They also embarrassed an (admittedly banged up) division rival at home, picked up multiple sacks and had the offense humming again in this one, leading to one of their better wins of the season. How do you balance your fear over the Falcons potentially missing out on an elite player with the excitement that comes from, you know, watching your favorite Falcons team win?

Your answer will vary, but at least for one day, I was just genuinely happy to see this team string together a couple of victories and look strong doing it. My greatest fear is that Atlanta is going to walk into this offseason thinking they don’t need to make changes and hard choices because they got it going late, but based on the humiliations they suffered earlier this season, I genuinely can’t imagine that happening. They’re at least getting a look at some of their better players making plays, and beginning to sort out where they can make improvements. But also, they won, and I think to a man the Falcons will tell you that means a lot inside the building.

And hell, it’s encouraging to see so much from Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford, to say nothing of Takk McKinley. It’s great to be reminded of what this offense looks like with Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu all rolling, and with Brian Hill as your #3 running back next year. It’s nice to see the defense doing good things and the offense doing solid things because it’s a reminder that this team doesn’t need an atom bomb to be relevant again, even if every draft pick and dollar needs to be wisely spent to get them into better shape. While I always am fond of saying that the Falcons would never quit and never tank, it’s nice to be reminded that they won’t, especially after five weeks of stinking garbage.

I don’t know if they can and will beat the Buccaneers, potentially sealing the fates of Ron Rivera and Dirk Koetter in back-to-back weeks, but I do know these Falcons can win some hearts and minds if they exit this season at 7-9 with three quality games in a row and land a killer player with, say, the #13 pick. Otherwise, they’ll probably just be asked where these kinds of efforts were when the team needed them most, and they’ll be confronting an offseason that is no less pivotal and fraught today than it was two weeks ago. The Falcons are taking baby steps, however inconsequential, toward a legitimate fix. There are miles to go before they truly get there.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • Matt Ryan had one sailed throw to Julio Jones, but otherwise was sharp throughout this one, finding receiving options seemingly at will. He hit Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley for touchdowns, locating all three of his top receivers and overcoming a slow stretch for the offense to pull ahead. Ryan’s putting together a season that compares very favorably to his 2016 MVP campaign, and while he won’t get the award this year, we’re clearly entered the best epoch of his career. I hope we don’t leave it anytime soon.
  • Julio has a sore hip? No big deal. He’ll still manage a touchdown, his seventh of the season, and draw the kind of attention that allows Ridley and Sanu to operate with such impunity.

And those two did just that. Sanu went for 81 yards and a touchdown on five grabs, including a beautiful 44 yarder, and Ridley added 90 yards and a touchdown on three receptions, including that third quarter-opening 75 yard score. This was may 75% of Julio, maybe less, and for much of the game it was just the Brian Hill show on the ground. Yet the Falcons still had a fine day through the air, which is a testament to this offense.

  • The ground game was very solid, thanks in part to rock solid blocking up front. Ty Sambrailo continues to shine as a run blocker and Wes Schweitzer has been settling back in, and the result was that Tevin Coleman managed 51 yards on 10 carries before exiting with an injury. Hill fumbled and trash talked his way into some cringe-worthy moments, but he also went off for 115 yards on eight carries against a very solid Carolina front, showing physicality and burst along the way. The Falcons are in absurdly great shape at running back even if they lose Coleman if they have a healthy Devonta Freeman, Ito Smith, and anything like the Hill we saw on Sunday.
  • Takkarist McKinley has been trying to get back on track for weeks, making plays here and there, but he really put it together against the punchless Panthers. He only had a half sack, but he was on Taylor Heinicke constantly and hammered the poor backup quarterback.
  • Jack Crawford and Grady Jarrett have been one hell of a duo for these Falcons, even if the rest of the defense has been pretty disappointing. Jarrett managed a sack and a forced fumble in this one, while Crawford got a sack and a nice interception off a Damontae Kazee tip earlier in the game to stop a Panthers scoring drive cold. Jarrett has a team-leading seven sacks, Crawford has six, and a draft addition and modest improvement from Deadrin Senat would give them a pretty fearsome group at the position in 2019.
  • Bruce Irvin looks like a man who wants to come back to Atlanta, too. He’s up to 3.5 sacks as a Falcon, with the latest coming on a fourth down against an overmatched Taylor Heinicke, and he’s clearly enjoying the ride. Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby may both be gone, and it would be awfully nice to keep a pass rusher with Irvin’s history of production around.
  • Another solid week for Steven Means, while we’re at it, and he should be in the running to be a low-cost Shelby replacement.
  • Another Brian Poole pick as he comes on hot toward the end of the season. He’s a restricted free agent and will be back, I’m pretty certain, though I have no idea what his role in 2019 is going to look like. His physicality and ballhawking ability make him a mighty useful reserve at worst.
  • Matt Bosher has been quietly pulling out of the mediocrity he was mired in earlier in the year, but it’s always been the big hits that made him a fan favorite. He added one to the highlight reel on Sunday, and it might’ve been his definitive moment, as he absolutely upended a charging Kenjon Barner and then flexed over him. Bosher’s at worst a solid punter and, as Barner himself put it, a killer when it comes to making a big special teams tackle.

The Ugly

  • In a different game, the Falcons would have cost themselves dearly with bad penalties (Desmond Trufant), unforced turnovers (Hill), and costly drops (Ridley, again). Happily those mistakes were not costly, but it’s a reminder that the Falcons are still prone to exhausting bouts of undisciplined play that put them in very bad spots.
  • Too many missed connections today, and with the exception of Ryan’s throw to a gimpy Julio, it was nice defensive play or receiver error that caused them. The Falcons tried to throw to promising rookie Russell Gage early but abandoned that after Gage couldn’t reel in a pair of targets, and Marvin Hall, Hill, and Coleman all picked up targets and had nothing to show for them.
  • It’ll get lost in what was a pretty solid win overall, but the Falcons consistently allowed the likes of Christian McCaffrey and Ian Thomas to slip by them. McCaffrey had little trouble putting up positive yardage on every play, and considering that Taylor Heinicke and Kyle Allen are not at all good, they had solid enough games. The Falcons were trying to bend and not break against this Carolina team, but I would have been very interested to see what might have happened if they pinned their ears back from very early on and went after an inexperienced quarterback instead of just trying to keep a bad offense in front of them. In their (very weak) defense, McCaffrey is tough.
  • Special teams will come under the microscope this offseason, I suspect, because of Keith Armstrong’s unit remaining unable to put even a halfway decent return game out there. They also let Barner eat them up a bit (minus that Bosher hit). I don’t think Armstrong is in any real danger, but I would love to see this team put a weapon out there on returns in 2019, instead of muddling along with, say, Justin Hardy.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

Give this one to Jack Crawford and Grady Jarrett, who sowed terror and confusion from the middle of this defensive line and either forced or contributed to multiple turnovers along the way.

One Takeaway

This maddening, excruciating season may not end with the Falcons playing garbage football, which is something.

Next Week

The final game of the season, against a dispirited Buccaneers squad that’s probably on the cusp of cutting ties with Dirk Koetter. Hooray!

Final Word