It was clear the Falcons weren’t going to win an elegant, effortless game against Carolina. They haven’t done so most of their year because of long-standing struggles, miscues and talent issues, and the Panthers are destined to play ugly games owing to their shaky passing attack and tough defense. It should not have surprised you that it came down to late in the fourth quarter.
Who cares, though? The Falcons won with a solid effort, and they did so behind a defense that delivered several big plays, an offense that once again ran the ball effectively, and an overall effort that may not have been memorable but was more effective than many we’ve seen this year. An ugly start put them behind and raised the specter of the Falcons folding against a Panthers team that played them tough earlier in the year, but in the end, Atlanta did more than enough to win by eight points and win their sixth game of the season. That makes for a happy Sunday.
Remember, too, that the Falcons only scored 13 points last time out against Carolina. There’s no question the Panthers are even weaker now than they were then, but Atlanta’s ability to put together a winning effort in spite of ongoing sloppiness has clearly improved, and progress was something we all more or less agreed was the name of the game in 2021. I would say the ground game and defense in particular have made real strides, and if we won’t see linear improvement, it’s not hard to look back at the days when this team couldn’t buy pressure, a turnover or a six yard rush and see that things are pointing in the right direction.
So give Mykal Walker, A.J. Terrell and Grady Jarrett their due for big plays. Give Dante Fowler credit for delivering a huge sack and John Cominsky for finally getting real game action and delivering against the run. Give Kyle Pitts, Russell Gage, Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson credit for delivering in key spots when the team needed them most. Give the Falcons credit for being better than they have been and being good enough to earn a crucial divisional win on the road, one that kept their profoundly unlikely but fun playoff hopes alive. This team has assured us again and again that they intend to keep battling, and if the results are uneven and often frustrating, they have not strayed from that promise and have not packed it in. If all that makes for is interesting football in December, well, it has been a while since we even got to watch that.
Let’s dive in a little more on the performances, and remember to
- Russell Gage took some time to get his feet under him, and whether that’s owing to injury or learning the offense, the passing game suffered as a result. Lately, though, Gage is showing he can be a major factor in this passing game now and in the future, which bodes well for him ahead of contract negotiations this spring. Gage won his matchups consistently on Sunday and bailed out Matt Ryan more than once on tough downs and distances, finishing the first quarter with three grabs for 58 yards. He would only snag one more catch the rest of the way, but it’s fun to think of what he’d be capable of if he didn’t have to function as the #1 wide receiver in this offense, and perhaps next year he’ll return and won’t need to.
- If I ever get tired of watching Cordarrelle Patterson truck his way into the end zone, please put me out to pasture. That’s a joy I didn’t know I needed but now can’t live without.
- Mike Davis quietly led all Falcons in combined yardage, and as the blocking improves up front and the team is more willing to use him as a receiver, we’ll continue to see progress from him. Davis was limited by the offense more than Davis limited the offense this year, and I’m happy to see that borne out here in the final several weeks of the season.
- It was nice to see Hayden Hurst come back and score a touchdown, The Falcons drew up a nice play to give him an open look and he took full advantage.
- Kyle Pitts being wide open on an absolutely crucial third down play in the fourth quarter is either Arthur Smith magic, Kyle Pitts magic, or some kind of dual magic. Any way you slice it, it’s still magic. Pitts once again had a fine day even if his stats weren’t eye-popping, and if Atlanta makes real progress on offense and adds playmakers, those monster days will come.
- On the broadcast, Jonathan Vilma repeatedly praised the left side of the offensive line, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Jake Matthews had some frustrating penalties—more on those later—but he and Jalen Mayfield delivered some huge blocks to help this ground game thrive and to keep Matt Ryan alive and well. Mayfield delivering over the final weeks of the season and seizing the left guard job over the long haul is so vital to this team’s long-term prospects, so this was an encouraging effort for him.
- Mykal Walker’s pick six was a phenomenal play. He read Cam Newton like a book, picked the pass and ran it all the way back with the help of a couple of timely blocks, giving Atlanta a touchdown lead and absolutely deflating Carolina in one fell swoop. In his opportunities this year, Walker has largely played pretty well, and that’s the kind athletic and heady play that demands a longer look. Given that I’m not sure Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun will both be back in 2022, Walker’s emergence is very welcome.
- A.J. Terrell is so precise, and he’s now added two interceptions to his outrageously good coverage in 2021. Aside from Cordarrelle Patterson, no Falcon deserves more recognition for the strides he’s made this year.
- Dante Fowler timed his biggest plays well. He killed what might’ve otherwise been a productive Cam Newton run in the fourth quarter and then absolutely slid/rolled through the Panthers offensive line shortly thereafter to sack Newton on fourth down and end Carolina’s last best chance to catch up in this one. The sack numbers aren’t huge, but when Fowler has been healthy, he’s been delivering some spectacular moments.
- Grady Jarrett’s ability to be in the backfield no matter what’s happening paid off when Cam Newton had trouble with the snap and handoff and fumbled it, as Jarrett was immediately there to scoop it up and give the Falcons a chance to extend their lead.
- Thomas Morstead has been a terrific addition to this team. His punt that traveled all the way to the 3 yard line helped set up the Walker turnover, and it’s startling how much better his leg is than anyone who has had the job since...I dunno, peak Matt Bosher?
- The Falcons called upon Younghoe Koo a lot in this one, and he delivered with three field goals, including a fourth quarter try from 48 to give Atlanta a 15 point lead. He remains one of the most reliable kickers in the business.
- Some teams start fast because their early drives are carefully planned and prepared, and other teams are the Falcons. Atlanta fizzled out, lost a challenge and chose to punt on 4th and 1 on their opening drive, something they’ve done far too often this year.
That led directly to an easy Carolina touchdown drive where the Panthers ran all over a defense that made it clear in the week leading up to the game that they expected the run. It was an embarrassing stretch of play, especially for a defense that supposedly knew what was coming, and the team would struggle for stretches all game to corral Chuba Hubbard and Cam Newton. Given the overall effort it’s hard to be too down on this, but it’d be nice if the Falcons could start faster against, say, the 49ers.
- Jake Matthews has been picking up an uncharacteristic number of calls of late. He was calling for holding and a false start in this one, backing up two separate drives along the way. His work as a blocker was terrific enough to overlook those errors, but they were costly calls in the moment, and between those penalties and an errant Matt Hennessy snap the line continued to make the kind of mistakes that will cost them against superior opponents.
- Matt Ryan finished with a solid day, but his ball to Tajae Sharpe on a deep route was unquestionably one of the weakest shots we’ve seen him take this year, as Sharpe had to come back and go to the ground and still couldn’t quite come up with it. Ryan thankfully had the ball hit the ground later on in the third quarter and got a roughing the passer call on another ill-advised throw where he nearly threw it right to a defender. The number of 50/50 balls he threw could have swung the outcome on another day, but thankfully some of Ryan’s iffiest throws this year have not gone the other way.
Ryan rallied and finished the day with a solid but unspectacular line and a couple of sharp balls to Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst in particular, so it’s hardly as if he imploded. The Falcons will have days going forward where the run isn’t humming like it is right now and they need a terrific day from Ryan, though, and we haven’t seen one of those recently.
- The refs missed an obvious facemask on Matt Ryan at the start of the fourth quarter on what might’ve otherwise been a successful two point conversion. You expect missed calls—that’s the nature of the beast—but once I saw the replay I was sort of stunned a professional officiating crew missed something so obvious.
- This team can’t ever totally salt a team away, can they? If they keep doing it but also pick up wins regularly, we’ll learn to live with it.
Mykal Walker had the single biggest play of the game in an effort the Falcons won by one score, so I’m going to give it to him. That was a great play.
Atlanta is scrappy, and considering they don’t have any teams left on the schedule who are playing superlative football right now, their ability to fight tooth and nail through sloppy stretches and discouraging scores from their opponents bodes well for them.
It’s 49ers time, with a rematch with Brian Hill and Kyle Shanahan in the offing. Check out the great Niners Nation for more.