The Falcons aren’t a good football team. That’s why they aren’t going to the playoffs. But they are a talented football team. That’s easy to forget after some of their best players ended up on injured reserve, others under-performed and the season went south.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn will have to reconsider his formula after this lost season. He won’t have to look elsewhere for much talent, though. When the Falcons are focused and persistent, like they were while winning the past two weeks, even their injury-depleted roster is better than most.
“I appreciate the fight of this team and the love they have for one another,” Quinn said. “It showed with how hard they played for one another.”
The effort was there but it doesn’t mean much without execution. The Falcons were uneven in that area, too, but it was good enough because they have a deeper collection of good players than Carolina.
The circumstances will lead some to discount this victory. Cam Newton didn’t play so the Panthers started rookie Taylor Heinicke at quarterback. He ended up playing most of the game with one good elbow after Falcons tackle Grady Jarrett got a hold of him.
But if you think the Falcons should beat a hobbled team, that’s proof that they’ve raised the bar. There’s a reason the Falcons were only favored by a field goal after Carolina’s QB switch. There was a time you couldn’t expect the Falcons to do what they should — three weeks ago they lost at home to Baltimore when they were favored — but lately they are beating expectations.
This wasn’t a case of Carolina giving in. The Panthers played hard, which you expect given the NFC South animosity. The Falcons matched their intensity and overwhelmed them with their talent.
A hip injury slowed Jones. He still had a touchdown pass because he’s that good, but he didn’t have his same juice. It didn’t matter because Sanu and Ridley made big plays.
Ridley’s 75-yard touchdown catch on the first play after halftime broke a tie and put the Falcons ahead for good. Sanu’s 44-yard run-and-catch score made the margin 24-10.
“Rarely in this league do you get two long touchdowns in a game that are untouched, and both of those guys were untouched,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said.
That’s what can happen an opponent has too many pass targets to cover and also most worry about the run. Both scores came on play-action passes that were effective because, for the third straight week, the Falcons ran the ball effectively.
After Sanu’s score, the Falcons didn’t let the Panthers back in it. Carolina’s last four possessions went interception, turnover on downs, turnover on downs and interception. Giving away leads at the end was a Falcons staple so this was growth, even if it came against a foe playing a backup QB.
Those takeaways are another sign that the Falcons are playing better defense. They had four against the Panthers, including three interceptions in the red zone, after they had three takeaways against Arizona.
Everything didn’t go smoothly for the Falcons. They still showed some of the same weaknesses that have held them back this season.
Carolina’s pass rush overwhelmed the Falcons’ offensive line in the first half — Ryan lost a fumble on a sack a play after Heinicke had done the same. The Falcons couldn’t disrupt Heinicke until they juiced the pass rush with blitzers. There was some slipshod tackling on Carolina’s short routes and soft coverage on third downs.
Carolina running back Christian McCaffery had a lot to do with that last part. He was elusive, tough and relentless. With 178 total yards, McCaffery gave the Panthers a chance by himself.
He didn’t have much help. By contrast, the Falcons are overflowing with play-makers and it was too much for Carolina.
Sanu was, as usual, a reliable chain mover and this time also delivered big plays. Ridley’s score tied the Falcons rookie mark with nine TD catches on the season. Falcons running back Devonta Freeman has played just two games this season and promising rookie Ito Smith went on the IR last week, so Hill and Tevin Coleman gashed the Panthers.
Sanu had a 24-yard run on a direct snap to set up the first TD. Hill had two runs for 20-plus yards before he added a 60-yarder in garbage time. Coleman had a 20-yard run and tight end Austin Hooper’s 32-yard catch led to a field goal.
The Falcons overcame their mistakes because they were too good for the Panthers. There were even signs they’ve recaptured some of the spirit that animated them during their Super Bowl season, but that had gone missing as they struggled this year.
Hill’s 60-yard run didn’t matter for the game’s outcome, but you couldn’t tell by the way his teammates celebrated. Witness also how the Falcons went wild when punter Matt Bosher picked up Carolina’s Kenjon Barner and slammed him to the ground on a return.
“That was awesome,” Jarrett said. “That definitely hyped us up.”
The Falcons locker room was lively after the game. From outside, you could hear big cheers for Hill (first career 100-yard game) and rookie cornerback Isaiah Oliver (first career interception). Inside, players talked about finishing strong in the next weekend’s season finale at Tampa Bay.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Jones said. “Keep going out there and playing for one another and having fun. That’s the ultimate thing. When you win, you have fun, and everybody likes to have fun.”
And it’s easier to win and have fun when you have good players. The Falcons still have plenty of those.