It’s been awhile since the Falcons have seen the sunnier side of .500.
On the strength of three turnovers, the Falcons cobbled together just enough offense to beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10 on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Falcons improved to 1-0 on the season and the Panthers started off the Bryce Young era dropping to 0-1. With the victory the Falcons moved to over .500 for the first time since Jan. 13, 2018.
“Every season is different,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Every team is different. I know what it’s like. We’re just happy to get a win.”
The Falcons outscored the Panthers 14-0 in the fourth quarter.
“Last year, you know, we were up and we didn’t finish,” Smith said. “This year, a little different mindset and guys made plays.”
Young, who played at Alabama, was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL draft. Houston’s David Carr was the last No. 1 overall pick to win his season-opener in 2002 when he beat the Cowboys at home.
While the Falcons didn’t throw ball down the field until late, they leaned on their rushing attack to get three touchdowns and some tough yardage. Rookie Bijan Robinson rushed 10 times for 56 yards and caught six passes for 27 yards and a touchdown. Running back Tyler Allgeier added two touchdown runs.
Safety Jessie Bates III had a hand in the three turnovers, two interceptions and a forced fumble. He also had 10 tackles. He left the game with an unannounced injury, but returned.
The Falcons, who had trouble sustaining drives on offense, scored two touchdowns and a field goal off the turnovers.
Quarterback Desmond Ridder completed 15 of 18 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown. He finished with a passer rating of 112.
“We’ve got to start faster,” Ridder said. “There are a lot of things that we can look back, there are a lot of things we can clean up and we can be better at for next week.”
Young, who won the Heisman Trophy after his sophomore season with the Crimson Tide, completed 20 of 38 passes for 146 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. He finished with a passer rating of 48.8.
“Critical mistakes, turnovers, that’s always going to be a cardinal sin from our position,” Young said. “They made great plays and I did a poor job of taking care of the ball and managing certain situations. … From my standpoint, I’m going to try and learn from this. It (hurts) to be on this side, but you try to turn the page and use it as fuel.”
The Falcons forced more than one turnover in just four games last season.
“It definitely lets this team know that it’s possible,” Bates said. “It’s possible that the work we put in pays off. For us to go out in Week 1 and get that first one out of the way, it’s huge. But we are going to celebrate tonight and next week we’ve got to go right back to work.”
The Falcons and the Panthers finished the first half with the score tied, 7-7.
The Falcons scored first after Bates’ intercepted Young late in the first quarter.
Ridder tossed a swing pass out to Robinson, who scored from 11 yards out. He made linebacker Frankie Luvu miss and he ripped through tackle attempts from Vonn Bell and Shaq Thompson on his way to the end zone.
“That first touchdown, that’s the stuff we see every day at practice,” Smith said. “That didn’t surprise me.”
After an exchange of punts, Young leaned of former Falcons tight end Hayden Hurst during a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown draft. He connected with Hurst on passes of 11 and 13 yards and then finally a 4-yard touchdown pass with safety Richie Grant in coverage.
The Panthers opened the second half with a nine play 50-yard drive. Kicker Eddie Pineiro made a 43-yard field goal to put the Panthers up 10-7.
The Falcons’ stalled after four plays and punted.
Bates came up with his second interception, but the offense had another three-and-out. Younghoe Koo made a 49-yard field goal to tie the game 10-10 with 4:52 left in the third quarter.
On the Panthers next possession, Bates knocked the ball off Carolina running back Miles Sanders and Lorenzo Carter recovered the ball.
The Falcons put together a seven-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that was highlighted by a 21-yard run by Robinson, who picked up a nice lead block from fullback Keith Smith. Allgeier capped off the drive with a crafty 3-yard TD run.
Allgeier was stacked up and then bounced his run outside around left end and stuck the ball out over the pylon.
Finally, with the game on the line and the Falcons needing a drive, Ridder connected with tight end Kyle Pitts for a 35-yard gain.
“It was good for Kyle to go get that ball and for Des to deliver it,” Smith said. “We weren’t clean enough in the passing game. It’s on everybody. I promise you that it will get cleaned up.”
Allgeier rushed for 3 yards and then scored his second TD on a 4-yard run.
Pitts returned to action after missing the last six games last season after suffered a knee injury against the Bears on Oct. 20.
“Getting back on the field is great,” Pitts said. “Being back on the field for Game 1. We are all working to come together and start 1-0.”
Pitts believed the offense was ready to go.
“Our relationships between each other, just playing for one another,” Pitts said. “Just having the same common goal, which is to score.”
The Falcons were 0-2 in season openers under Smith and had lost their past five season openers overall.
In 2017, they won their season opener 23-17 over the Bears in Chicago. The last time the Falcons won the season opener at home was in 2015, when they defeated the Eagles 26-24.
Since 2002, when the NFL expanded to 32 clubs, teams that win their season-openers are more than twice as likely to reach the playoffs than those who lose the opening game.
Of the 334 teams that won openers…176 went to the playoffs (117 won division titles).
Of the 332 teams that lost openers…82 went to the playoffs (50 won division titles).
(Note: There are a different number of winning and losing teams in season-opening games due to the inclusion of 2017 Week 2 victories by Miami and Tampa Bay, which was the season-opener for each team (their Week 1 meeting was postponed due to Hurricane Irma).
In 2022, the 14 playoff teams compiled a 10-4 record on opening week.
The Falcons are set to host the Green Bay Packers at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.