On an astonishing day, the Falcons seize first place

Both teams should have won – and lost, to be fair – in regulation. Neither did. Marcus Mariota almost lost the game in overtime. Then he won the game in overtime. Had Carolina prevailed, Mariota’s team would have been in a four-way tie for first – and last – place in the NFC South. By winning, the Falcons are …

Alone at the top.

ExploreFirst-place Falcons storm back to defeat Panthers, 37-34 in OT

Granted, the NFC South is the only division where .500 constitutes a summit, but that’s not the Falcons’ fault. They’re 4-4. They were a 47-yard PAT in regulation and 32-yard field-goal try in OT from an agonizing loss, even by this franchise’s forever-in-purgatory standards. But one thing we know about these Falcons: Younghoe Koo doesn’t miss.

The halftime score was 14-10. The final was 37-34, which only hints at the anarchy loosed over the fourth quarter, not to mention OT. The Falcons went from eight points ahead to tied at 21. They nosed back ahead. Then they fell behind. Then back ahead. Then farther ahead. They saw Carolina tie it on a 62-yard pass from P.J. Walker to D.J. Moore with 12 seconds left. They also saw Moore called for unsportsmanlike conduct – he ripped off his helmet in celebration – and a certain loss became less certain.

Said Arthur Smith, the Falcons’ coach, on how he kept his head when all about him were losing theirs: “You try to stay as even as possible. That’s what you train yourself to do … You’ve got to make a lot of decisions. Do you take the penalty on the extra point?”

This wasn’t a clear-cut choice. Had the Falcons opted to accept the 15 yards on the kickoff, they’d have been (almost surely) behind but within a long completion of a Koo game-winner. In the NFL, 12 seconds can be enough. Smith chose to move the Panthers back on the PAT, which made it a 47-yard try. Which Eddy Pineiro missed. Wide left.

ExplorePhotos: Falcons work overtime, topple rival Panthers

Carolina lost the overtime toss. The Falcons lost the ball when Mariota tried to throw deep as a rusher slammed into his legs. The underthrown pass was intercepted and returned 54 yards by C.J. Henderson. The Panthers took the ball at the Falcons’ 20, already in field-goal range. Three snaps later, Pineiro returned to right his wrong. Smith called timeout to make the kicker think, not that he figured it would work.

“It’s the only thing you’ve got left in your pocket,” Smith said.

Pineiro is a former Florida Gator working for his sixth NFL organization. He’s not Mr. Automatic. He missed again, wide left again. A half-hour later, the first line on his Wikipedia page had been changed to “Eddy Pineiro is a loser.”

On this day, Mariota was a winner. He’d gone from completing two of his first five passes to hitting 12 in a row. He threw for 253 yards and three touchdowns. On third-and-1 on the long game’s final possession, he took the snap, ducked into the line, spun left and kept going. The 30-yard gain put Koo in position. As ever, Koo’s kick sailed true, putting the Falcons in first place roughly halfway through the season.

“I just tried to make the most of it,” Mariota said of his decisive dash. The same can be said of his season. He’d become an NFL never-was, drafted second overall in 2015 but discarded by the Titans and Raiders. He was brought here because somebody had to play quarterback in the wake of Matt Ryan’s leaving. He has had his critics – that’s my hand you see raised – but in a division with Tom Brady, Jameis Winston and Baker Mayfield, whose team is in first place?

Said Smith of Mariota’s third-down improvisation: “Not a lot of guys can make that play. That’s why we believe in Marcus.”

Said Mariota: “We were given another chance to win the game.”

Nothing about the Falcons suggests this is a great team. It might not be a good one. It has won as many as it has lost. It has allowed five more points than it has scored. But it has, except for the blowout in Cincinnati, given itself a chance in every game. Smith and his staff have maximized all resources, which is the definition of coaching.

Their division lead mightn’t last long, but after eight games we all figured we’d be discussing the 2023 draft, not playoff odds. Speaking of which: At 6 p.m. Sunday, FiveThirtyEight gave these Falcons a 45% chance of qualifying for postseason.

Something’s happening here. Did I expect this? No. And neither did you.