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Falcons vs. Panthers recap: Emerging from chaos and fire with a win in hand

The Falcons don’t make anything easy, but they battle like absolutely nobody else.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Your Atlanta Falcons won on Sunday against the Panthers and are leading the NFC South, just as they were after the Buccaneers imploded against the Ravens on Thursday night football. That’s a clean, clinical description of a Sunday that more closely resembled a haunted house than a football game.

There were lead changes upon lead changes upon lead changes in this one. There was a pick six for Atlanta and two picks for Carolina, the last of which seemed to be the end of the game. There was a crucial missed extra point and a crucial missed field goal, a boatload of Panthers blunders and penalties that seemed to doom them on multiple occasions, and a raft of big plays for both team that rescued them from near-certain doom. It was sloppy, occasionally very stupid, even more occasionally exhilarating, and ultimately set back the public perception of the NFC South and these two teams back by decades. It was, still, a Falcons win.

For an Atlanta team that was largely expected to be underwhelming, a 4-4 record is still a bit of a marvel. They’re winning games they weren’t expected to win and winning games like this one where seemingly everything goes wrong and they keep battling and clawing until the victory is in hand, with that final offensive drive after the missed Carolina field goal standing out as a superlative example. They’re getting it done with a quarterback viewed as a stopgap who has now turned in two strong efforts in three weeks, a former undrafted free agent running back who had to fight for a chance and is now a key piece of the puzzle at the position, a veteran offensive lineman playing left guard for the first time, and mid-round picks, one-year gambles, and relative unknowns across the defense. They’re winning, and hell, all by itself that’s a marvel. Over the long haul I think this team is going to be just fine, and if the next offseason goes well, perhaps even a bit of a juggernaut in the near future. In the here and now, they’re tough and easy to root for, even if they’re sometimes exhausting.

Yet it’s also hard to leave this game behind without a lingering sense of unease if you care about this team making any sort of divisional title run in 2022. The Falcons were dead when D.J. Moore embarrassed Rashaan Evans and Dean Marlowe for the game-winning touchdown...and then got called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that it’s hard to imagine many players would’ve brought on themselves after catching a game-winning touchdown. That led to a missed extra point that forced overtime, as did the missed field goal in overtime after Marcus Mariota threw an interception that was returned comfortably into field goal range.

In both cases, nothing Atlanta actually did saved the game, and it took luck and Carolina’s ineptitude to keep the Falcons from losing outright. This was, you’ll note, a Panthers team in its second game with an interim head coach, no Christian McCaffrey, down one key piece of the running back room, starting P.J. Walker at quarterback, and widely regarded as one of the NFL’s worst squads, and the Falcons essentially could not stop them with the game on the line or avoid a massive mistake when they badly needed to just keep moving. The loss to the Bengals was understandable because the Bengals are good and seemingly tailor-made to attack Atlanta’s biggest weaknesses. The near-loss to the Panthers was a much worse sign for this team’s immediate future, given that Carolina had a pick-six, nine costly penalties for 74 yards, and still nearly won the game.

The Falcons are clearly a better story right now than they are an actual football team, with their ability to run at a throwback rate effectively capturing headlines, their plucky wins fueling buzz around their present and future, and their continued defiance of the (obviously, comically low) expectations placed on them ahead of the 2022 season. I still think they’re a far better team than yesterday’s performance indicated, one that can take this 4-4 record and division lead and ensure they remain a contender for the NFC South title throughout the season with a little luck and some good health. To bear that out, they’re going to have to play a lot better as a collective than they have the past two games, as they can’t count on absolutely heroic plays from Marcus Mariota, Lorenzo Carter, and Damiere Byrd saving the day on a weekly basis.

For all of that, though, I cannot stress enough that the Falcons won, and we will never stop loving that. On to the full recap.

The Good

  • It may have started ugly and nearly ended on a nearly ruinous down note, but in between and in the final moments it was all roses for Marcus Mariota. After an awful opening series of drives where Mariota struggled under pressure and making throws, he revived and took advantage of quality looks, connecting on a long barrage of completions and picking up three touchdowns to Kyle Pitts, Tyler Allgeier, and Damiere Byrd along the way. We know that Mariota has his limitations—he showed them early—but at his best he avoids pressure, uses his legs to lethal effect, and chains together sharp passes that keep the offense moving.

He was at his best quite often today, and it helped keep the team in a game they otherwise could’ve easily lost. It was also, after a few weeks in a row where his passing attempts were extremely limited, confirmation that Mariota can do significant damage through the air if he’s given the opportunity to do so. Ultimately, he did so on the final drive to get Atlanta in a position to get a game-winning field goal, and then used that difficult-to-defend speed to pick up about 30 yards on a run and ensure the team was within Younghoe Koo’s comfort zone. All the scrutiny won’t go away for Mariota, given his uneven year to this point, but his effort on his 29th birthday was one I suspect he’ll remember very fondly.

  • This running back duo gets the job done, and they’re about to get Cordarrelle Patterson back. In this one, Allgeier steadily picked up yards even if he was rarely spectacular and added a nice touchdown and 46 yards on three catches, while Huntley rumbled for 91 yards on just 16 carries and managed a huge 31 yard gain in the fourth quarter with the game tied up. Having a pair of young, physical backs in this offense is a huge deal, and Huntley has proven he can be a lethal option as a runner while Allgeier is an effective one who can also chip in as a blocker and pass catcher. Atlanta’s in good shape now and in the future at running back.
  • Of course, that goes beyond the backs. As shaky as this line has been protecting Mariota at times, they continue to pave the way effectively for these runners, and they do work further from the line of scrimmage that’s critical as well. The blocking by Elijah Wilkinson and Drew Dalman on Allgeier’s big touchdown score was impressive, and this line deserves credit for excelling in those scenarios that are so critical to this offense.
  • Kyle Pitts had a big effort after a couple of quiet weeks. He had three grabs for 38 yards in the first half, including a nice touchdown where he sold a block and got himself wide open over the middle for Mariota to connect with. In the second half, he added two more grabs for another 42 yards, including a 33 yard catch-and-run that set up a field goal attempt for Younghoe Koo. This offense is most dangerous when Pitts is involved, so it was very encouraging to see him thriving against the Panthers.
  • Drake London had a fairly quiet day in terms of receiving production, but the catches he did make were difficult and important ones, and he continues to be an impressive factor as a blocker. The rookie receiver finished with four grabs for 31 yards and has been a strong fit in the offense, even if he’s not reeling in gobs of catches the way he did in the early going.
  • Damiere Byrd is a legitimate weapon when he can use his speed, as he’s been able to do multiple times in recent weeks, and Mariota’s trust in him seems to be growing by the week. In this one, Mariota found him over the middle late in the fourth quarter and Byrd was able to simply out-run the Panthers defense en route to a touchdown that gave Atlanta the lead back. Given Mariota’s trust in him and his ability to punish lax defenses, Byrd should be a fixture in this passing game going forward.
  • Lorenzo Carter had the play of the game. With the Panthers driving just before halftime and threatening to add to their lead, Carter jumped a pass from P.J. Walker and took it to the house, turning the tide instantly for a Falcons team that had just fizzled out offensively. It was a game-swinging play for a defender who has been consistently impacting the game this year, and he added in a near-stop on D’Onta Foreman that wasn’t aided by other Falcons late in the game. This defense needs to prioritize bringing him back in 2023.
  • Grady Jarrett had two tackles for a loss in this one, but his impact continues to go beyond the box score, as the veteran defensive lineman demands extra attention and is disruptive on a more regular basis than anyone else for Atlanta. Without him, this defense would go from “bad but sometimes fun and capable” to “horrible” in a real hurry.
  • Rashaan Evans took full advantage of a blown blocking assignment by Carolina, taking down P.J. Walker on third down and long near the very end of the game to put the Panthers in an impossible situation. Evans had no business trying to trail D.J. Moore on that ruinous completion at the end of the game and I’m not going to blame him for that one, and overall he continues to play pretty well this year.
  • Younghoe Koo has sometimes lacked for opportunities this year, but not in this one. Atlanta’s kicker was nails on every attempt and Carolina’s kicker was not, and that proved to be instrumental to the outcome. In all, Koo hit four field goal attempts and three extra points, accounting for 15 of Atlanta’s 37 points all by himself.

The Ugly

  • The opening stretch of play was awful for this offense. Kyle Pitts dropped a pass, Mariota threw a pick and absorbed an extremely ill-advised sack, and Atlanta managed zero points in the entire first quarter. Had the defense not put up its best stretch of play in that initial quarter, the Falcons might’ve been in real trouble.
  • The Mariota interception to Damiere Byrd in overtime was an ill-advised one that would’ve lost Atlanta the game had Carolina’s kicker not blown it. Once again the blame can be spread around for that play, as I’m not certain it was wise for Mariota to try it deep again to Byrd given that he had gone to that well already successfully and put the Panthers on high alert, but he might’ve still gotten it done had he not been hit as he threw. Thankfully, it proved far less fatal than it initially seemed.
  • The blocking on passing downs has to be called out again, because it’s putting Mariota and this offense in tough spots. Mariota’s excellence from the second quarter on was aided by play calling and his own ability to escape pressure, as the pressure was never really all that far away against a very strong Carolina front. Mariota sometimes holds on to the ball far too long and walks into sacks on his own, I’ll readily grant you, but the costly calls (Elijah Wilkinson was hit with two in this one) and generally shaky pass protection are impacting the course of the game, as the latter did on that hit on the overtime deep ball. Atlanta’s not miraculously going to get light years better at this, so they’ll have to continue to rely on clever scheming, extra blockers, and Mariota’s ability to just get away.
  • The run defense was a Greek tragedy. The team’s strength on that side of the ball through seven weeks collapsed into ruin and sadness in this one, allowing former Falcon D’Onta Foreman to run for well over 100 yards and three touchdowns against them on Sunday. In total, they allowed over 160 yards on the ground in this one, repeatedly failing to make tackles and getting absolutely gashed by a team that traded Christian McCaffrey and was down Chuba Hubbard. Foreman’s a better back than his constant bouncing around the league would have indicated heading into this matchup, but Carolina’s ability to impose their will up front was troubling, especially with Austin Ekeler on deck.
  • The pass defense wasn’t much better, if we’re being frank. P.J. Walker just flat out missed a handful of times on deep shots, including one where the Falcons weren’t close to having his receiver covered, and a couple of drops and bobbles deflated his numbers a bit. He still finished the day with over 300 yards passing, and the team allowed one of the most deflating completions I’ve ever seen near the end of regulation, a 62 yard bomb to D.J. Moore where Evans and Dean Marlowe were trailing behind by multiple steps despite the fact that Walker had no chance but to throw the Hail Mary and no reliable options to throw it to other than Moore.

The mitigating factor here is, of course, injury. With backups in at corner and safety, you expect some of these things to happen, and the experience is useful for Darren Hall, Cornell Armstrong, and Dee Alford in particular. We have to hope Jaylinn Hawkins and A.J. Terrell return soon, though, because some of Walker’s success attacking this defense deep is a reminder of how much work this pass defense has to do and how much they miss some of their starters.

  • Falcons special teams has been a true strength this year, but they were a bit of a liability on Sunday for reasons that had to enrage special teams coordinator Marquice Williams. The team got hit with three big penalties to help give Carolina excellent field position, the most egregious of which was a Feleipe Franks unnecessary roughness call in the fourth quarter that gave the Panthers a shot to regain the lead. With Avery Williams scuffling a bit on kickoff returns in this one and those errors, it was likely just an uncharacteristic off day for a really good and disciplined group, but one that fueled a shaky all-around day from Atlanta.

The Wrapup

Game MVP

You could give this to multiple players, but I’ll go with Koo, especially after being reminded of what it’s like to have an unreliable kicker by Carolina. Mariota and Carter deserve honorable mentions, at minimum.

One Takeaway

Atlanta can’t get away with an effort this uneven against football teams better than the Carolina Panthers, given that they barely beat the Carolina Panthers, but they are a team that simply does not give up no matter how bleak things look. It’s difficult not to appreciate that.

Next Week

This team can’t rest on its laurels for even a second, because as good as that win feels, they’re now heading into a tougher matchup against the 4-3 Chargers, who can air it out and have been in a lot of close games themselves this season.

Final Word