The Panthers (5-8) fired coach Ron Rivera on Tuesday but came to town alive for a wild card playoff berth, if barely. They left with their second-worst loss of the season and their playoff hopes over. Only the 49ers beat Carolina by a bigger margin (51-13 in Week 8). The Falcons might be treated similarly when they go to San Francisco on Sunday, but that’s not as much of a sure thing as it seemed a month ago.
This wasn’t a one-off for the Falcons. Their defense harassed Saints quarterback Drew Brees like they did Carolina’s Kyle Allen (twice). They made hay against a good New Orleans run defense like they did against Carolina’s yielding unit. Pass defense is a strength for the Panthers and Ryan picked them apart on Sunday same as in Carolina three weeks ago.
It turns out the Falcons’ 35-22 home loss to Tampa Bay in Week 12 is the aberration since the bye. That defeat officially eliminated the Falcons from the playoffs. It didn’t extinguish their spirit. The Falcons made New Orleans work to win the rematch on Thanksgiving, then scored 23 unanswered points to put away the Panthers.
“Every game is important to us,” Falcons safety Ricardo Allen said. “We’re going out there and playing hard regardless of the (bad) circumstances or not.”
That’s true. I don’t want to make too much of it because rational self-interest as professionals gives the Falcons incentive to give their best effort. They are humans, though, so slippage is always possible. Look at how the Panthers gave in after forging a 10-10 tie in the second quarter.
The Falcons responded with a six-play drive for a field goal that took just 1:05. The next five Carolina possessions ended fumble, punt, fumble, punt, and interception. Well, the second fumble technically wasn’t a possession because Falcons safety Damontae Kazee jarred the ball loose from returner Greg Dortch and Koo scooped it up.
That came right after Zaccheaus’ TD gave the Falcons a 27-10 lead. After recovering the fumble, Koo kicked a field goal to make it 30-10. That was it for the Panthers, who matched the season high for turnovers they set in the 29-3 loss to the Falcons in Week 11.
Falcons pass rusher Vic Beasley ended Carolina’s first drive after halftime with a sack-strip. Kazee had two interceptions. After forcing four turnovers in the first half of the season, the Falcons have 10 in the past four games.
“Everybody is bringing energy, everybody wants to play,” Kazee said. “Just go out there and have fun.”
It was that kind of day for the Falcons. Ryan surpassed 50,000 passing yards for his career. Julio Jones topped 1,000 yards for the sixth straight season. Zaccheaus’ first career catch was the third-longest TD reception in team history. Koo made a 50-yard field goal that bounced off the right upright.
The Falcons’ offense started slow in large part because of issues protecting Ryan in the pocket. The Falcons found their rhythm by feeding running back Devonta Freeman (84 yards on 17 carries). He particularly found success on the right side of the line, where rookie linemen Chris Lindstrom and Caleb McGary did good work. Eventually, Ryan’s pass protection improved and he went about slicing up the Panthers.
On the TD pass to Zaccheaus, the Panthers went after Ryan with an all-out blitz. Throwing from the end zone, Ryan took a big hit just after delivering a pass that dropped to Zacchaues two yards shy of midfield. The rookie shed safety Eric Reid’s tackle attempt and ran for the end zone.
“Proud of the way we played today,” Ryan said. “We competed hard. The offensive line played extremely well. Ran the football effectively, and our defense and special teams played lights out.”
It was the best effort of the season for the Falcons. They’ve been a different team since the bye. It’s happening too late to save their season, but winning like this means more than a little.