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Falcons - Panthers recap: Carolina’s good for what ails Atlanta

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For the second time this season, the Falcons beat their rivals handily. This time, it was even more fun than the last time.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

The perfect cure for what ails this Falcons team? Playing the Panthers. Atlanta’s been consistently great against Carolina in the Dan Quinn era, and with Ron Rivera gone, that continued as the Falcons made their way to a pretty comfortable little win, their fourth of the season.

It didn’t look like it was going to be all that fun an afternoon at halftime, when the Falcons managed a Younghoe Koo field goal to go up by three points. Throughout the first half, they missed the opportunities you expected them to miss, scuffled in ways you expected them to scuffle, and generally frustrated us.

The second half was as entertaining as any half of football the Falcons have played this year. They outscored Carolina 27-10, pounded Kyle Allen, and put together terrific plays like the touchdown to Olamide Zaccheaus, which will go down as one of this season’s most memorable moments. We know the Falcons can’t actually go anywhere and we know they’re about to face the 49ers, but that effort was still an enjoyable one, and a reminder that this team is still maddeningly capable of quality play.

With that second straight win over the Panthers, who look like a lost team with five straight losses, Atlanta looks poised to rise up the NFC South standings. I’m still hopeful they can snag at least a top ten pick to give this team a better shot at the kind of quick turnaround we’ll all jonesing for, but I do still love a good win. It’ll be best to take it week-to-week from here on out, given how maddeningly inconsistent this team is, but hopefully we can have our elite player cake and eat a W or two in these final games.

On to the full recap.

The Good

  • The ground game had an easy matchup, but for once, they actually took advantage of it thanks to noticeably improved run blocking and spry days from Devonta Freeman and Brian Hill. Matt Gono and Kaleb McGary, in particular, threw some genuinely impressive blocks in the early going, which let Free show off some of his trademark pop and wiggle with a little space to move. They finished the day with a season-high number of yards, which is a reflection on Koetter doing a better job and much better blocking by the likes of Chris Lindstrom, Matt Gono, and others.

Free in particular had one of his better games of the year with better blocking in front of him, particularly with his first touchdown rumble of the year in the third quarter, where he found easy lanes and took full advantage of them. He finished the day with 84 yards and a touchdown on the ground and four grabs for 10 yards on the day.

Brian Hill was even better late, putting up 9 carries for 62 yards and a touchdown on the ground, including a pretty 27 yard gallop enabled by some excellent blocking up front. I wrote earlier this weekend that he needed some big days to stick on this roster next year, and this was a tremendous first step.

  • Matt Ryan didn’t always or even regularly have a ton of time, but getting back Julio Jones and Austin Hooper still made a major difference, and the pass protection improved as the game went on and gave him the chance to take some shots. He was more on target than he was against the Saints, throwing pretty sideline balls to Hooper, taking nice shots downfield to Julio, and finding Calvin Ridley for a smart, pretty touchdown throw in the second quarter. He finished an efficient day with over 300 yards and a couple of touchdowns, passing 50,000 career yards in the process and leapfrogging Peyton Manning for the most yards ever through 12 seasons with three games left to go in this one.

He’s not bad, I’m saying.

  • Olamide Zaccheaus had the play of the year on offense thus far. Matt Ryan found him with a little room over the middle against Donte Jackson and went for it, throwing a beautiful ball right into his hands. Zaccheaus shook Jackson and took it the rest of the way, resulting in a 93 yard touchdown grab for the rookie on his very first NFL catch. The team kept him all year because his talent is evident, and it was great to see it pay off in such spectacular fashion.
  • Calvin Ridley and Julio Jones were eating all day before Ridley’s scary (and as of the time I’m writing this, unspecified) medical issue that forced him from the game. Ridley has a knack for finding the open spaces in coverage, and Julio remains Julio.
  • De’Vondre Campbell is playing his best football of the year right now, and he managed a decisive tipped pass that Damontae Kazee picked and a big third down sack of Kyle Allen in the second quarter. It’s not a sure thing that he’s coming back next year for these Falcons, but he’s going to help himself land a good contract either way.
  • Speaking of Kazee, his aggression and play making ability at safety are still fantastic, even if his season has been a bit uneven overall. With his second pick of the year and ninth of his career, he’s already up to 24th on the team’s career interceptions list, and should keep rising. The Falcons aren’t going to be able to bury him or throw him at corner next year.
  • Takk McKinley has waited all season to close out some sacks, so you can bet he was delighted on Sunday. Takk managed two sacks in this one, turning all those close calls into stats, and he remains a quality player who should have better days ahead.
  • Vic Beasley got in on the fun in this one, too. He got around the edge and used his closing speed to great effect early in the third quarter, bringing down Kyle Allen from behind and forcing a fumble Tyeler Davison picked up for the Falcons. He picked up a second sack and forced fumble later in this one, and now has six sacks on the season. After no one dealt for him at the deadline, Beasley has his second highest single season sack total and still has time to build on it, which should help him in free agency.
  • Grady Jarrett is still great.
  • It’s late enough in the season that I feel perfectly comfortable using this space to praise punts. Ryan Allen’s coffin corner against the Panthers in the first quarter—and Christian Blake’s stellar, heads up play to stop the ball at the 1 yard line—was the highlight of the early going. Unfortunately, Blake stepped out of bounds first and the play did not stand, but Allen’s still fared well. With Matt Bosher
  • Younghoe Koo put together another nice day, knocking two in for the first half from 37 and 35 yards out, hitting his first 50 yarder in Atlanta, and finishing the day with four converted field goals in all. He’s now 16/18 with the Falcons and recovered a fumble on a kickoff return today, further endearing him to this team. There’s a pretty good chance he goes into the summer of 2020 as the leading candidate to be Atlanta’s kicker.

The Ugly

  • The run defense had a so-so game, and that proved to be a problem when the Panthers suddenly got to driving late in the second quarter. Christian McCaffrey broke tackles, juked guys out, and took advantage of fine blocking to put them back on their heels. They tightened up later, but those stretches worry me with San Francisco up next.
  • The offense continues to infuriate at times. The glimpses of greatness were there again in this one, particularly in the ground game, but the Falcons started to squander their chances with unproductive runs, poor pass protection, and iffy decisions early on and never really stopped. It didn’t matter much against the Panthers, but it could matter more against other teams coming up.

I still think we’ll take 40 points, though.

  • I’d be nitpicking beyond that. The injuries hurt and the Falcons made plenty of mistakes, but they won this one by a ton and played an enjoyable, quality game along the way. At this point in the season and three tougher games coming up, what more could you want?

The Wrapup

Game MVP

There are so many good choices, but I’ll give it to the man who accounted for over 300 yards passing and played a very clean game in Matt Ryan. Honorable mentions to Vic Beasley, who forced a turnover and had two sacks, Damontae Kazee and his two picks, and Younghoe Koo and his fumble recovery and 16 points on Sunday.

One Takeaway

Carolina is a team the Falcons love to play, and they are certainly capable of still playing quality football despite everything that has gone wrong. With the offensive line getting Matt Gono and Chris Lindstrom involved and enjoying better results, we have a little hope for next year on that front, too.

Okay, that was more than one takeaway. Lemme have this.

Next Week

Atlanta’s up against the 49ers, who just finished hanging nearly 50 points on the Saints. It’s likely to be an ugly game, given how good San Francisco is, but maybe the offense

Check out Niners Nation for more.

Final Word

AfunSunday?