Standings notwithstanding, Falcons have long way to go after loss in Carolina

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The biannual Falcons-Panthers matchups almost always invite football buffoonery. Throw in the Thursday night element and Tropical Storm Nicole, and this one was sure to make Amazon ponder its $1 billion annual investment.

That remark was made in jest, of course. Football is king in this country. Millions upon millions tuned into this game, opining about how awful it was, while their eyes stayed glued. But it didn’t deserve a national audience. It sure didn’t warrant your Wi-Fi.

The Falcons, masquerading as a potential playoff team because of their division’s ineptitude, slipped and slid into their worst loss of the season Thursday in Charlotte, losing 25-15. It didn’t feel that close. It was an ugly contest, one worsened by dreary weather and continuous mishaps by both teams.

Consider this stumble a reminder that while the Falcons have exceeded expectations, and while they’ll be within a game of first place, that doesn’t mean they’re anything more than semi-competent. Their record dropped to 4-6 after they were bested by one of the NFL’s fastest-sinking ships.

Carolina made a field goal on its opening drive and never trailed. Despite the Falcons pulling within seven with less than three minutes remaining – and Richie Grant dropping what could’ve been a heroic interception – the game didn’t feel competitive.

The Falcons’ late rally won’t get any praise here. They had plenty of chances to take a win that Carolina begged to give them in the waning minutes. They couldn’t do it.

Quarterback Marcus Mariota, in what seemed a tribute to his draftmate Jameis Winston, was erratic and careless with the ball throughout the evening. He almost threw a ludicrous near pick-6 while twirling backward toward the ground but was ruled down. He almost threw another pick-6 late that linebacker Shaq Thompson dropped.

Observers will continue to call for rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder. The Falcons, who know more about the player than Twitter users, disagree with the outsiders.

“I was trying to win the game,” coach Arthur Smith said when asked another question about whether he considered going with Ridder. That quote says all one needs to know about how the franchise views the rookie right now.

But let’s set aside the same quarterback talking points. Mariota wasn’t the only issue.

The Falcons have excelled in two areas: running the ball (fourth in NFL) and stopping the run (eighth). The Panthers haven’t solved much this season, but they’ve figured out the Falcons’ strengths. Carolina ran for 169 yards in the teams’ first meeting, 118 of which came from D’Onta Foreman. The Panthers ran for 232 yards Thursday. Foreman was responsible for 130 of those yards.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Foreman what enabled his success against the Falcons. His answer was what you’d expect: the offensive line. Asked a follow-up about whether there was something the Panthers found that they could expose, Foreman responded: “Nah. I feel like all of our runs were pretty good, and we stuck with it and made it work.”

Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks on the same subject: “I don’t think that it was so much Atlanta. It just happened that with these two games, we try to do the same thing. … It’s just a mindset we’re trying to create.”

The Falcons rushed for only 33 yards in the first half. They finished with 138, but that doesn’t convey the struggles they endured for much of the night. Panthers edge rusher Brian Burns credited the Falcons with going up-tempo in the second half, which “caught us off guard,” but he noted he otherwise was satisfied with his team’s rush defense.

He should be. The Panthers beat the Falcons with their own formula. After the Falcons won 37-34 in overtime in the wildly entertaining first meeting 11 days earlier, the Panthers were more physical and controlled the game throughout the rainy night in the boring rematch.

“You have to give Carolina credit,” Smith said. “They came out, they got the lead. They won both lines of scrimmage. It wasn’t pretty. At times, we had things going, but we had some pretty ugly penalties that moved us back. We were off track for much of the night.”

There isn’t much to learn from this game, frankly, outside the Falcons fearing that teams might discover more effective ways to gash them on the ground. What this contest did provide, however, was an illuminating showcase of the current NFC South for a national audience.

The Panthers didn’t look like a team riding out the rest of the season under Wilks, but they’re 3-7. Bank of America Stadium’s atmosphere didn’t exactly compare with The Big House. The organization and the team’s fans know the Panthers are trending toward a juicy draft pick, even if the team is playing hard at the moment (give Wilks credit there).

Carolina is a last-place team that fired its coach, traded its best player (running back Christian McCaffrey) and desperately needs a long-term quarterback. They’re about the easiest team on anybody’s schedule.

Yet they have three wins, all courtesy of the NFC South. The Falcons, meanwhile, are 1-3 in this division. It’s difficult to sit here and talk seriously about the Falcons as division champs, even if all it takes is 7-10. We’ll save space by omitting the Buccaneers’ and Saints’ shortcomings (4-5 and 3-6, respectively). This is the Falcons’ and Panthers’ night.

For as much as we Southerners pump our chests about the SEC, the 2022 NFC South should hurt our football pride. (Then again, if you’re a Georgia fan these days, you probably couldn’t care less.) Each team has a chance. That doesn’t mean any deserves one.

The Falcons were three-point favorites Thursday. After starting 6-0 against the spread, they’ve failed to cover in the past four. How I view that: This team, like its division, is hard to figure. Falcons players love Arthur Smith. He clearly has a brilliant rushing scheme. And the Falcons won’t be drafting in the top five, as many expected entering the year. But they have a long way to go to be a worthy playoff team, even if the standings create an illusion that suggests otherwise.