“This one stings,” Smith said.
Smith, the offensive play-caller, might have avoided that bad feeling if he’d instructed Ridder to hand the ball off twice more and, at worst, take the short field goal. The Falcons had a second down at Carolina’s 18-yard line with less than eight minutes to play. The Panthers had done next-to-nothing with the ball up to that point.
Smith decided to call a pass. Ridder escaped a pass rusher and looked downfield. Teammates Kyle Pitts and Drake London were in the area, but both had defenders clinging to them. Ridder passed the ball between Pitts and London, right at Panthers safety Xavier Woods.
“That wasn’t a very good play by Ridder,” Panthers linebacker Brian Burns said, dryly stating the obvious.
Said Smith: “You’re trying to get outside the pocket with him. You’re so run-heavy and you’re trying to call a movement keeper and, thinking, ‘Hey, worst case he’d take off (running).’ There’s a lot of things you’re going to second-guess yourself with. That’s not a shot at (Ridder) because it’s on all of us and it certainly starts with me.”
There’s a big flaw in Smith’s reasoning that a safe passing play didn’t carry much risk. Ridder has had season-long issues of putting the ball at jeopardy with bad decisions, often at the worst times. Best not to tempt fate by putting the ball in Ridder’s hands with so much riding on a victory.
Burns said the Panthers figured Ridder would give them a chance for a takeaway after they stopped a first-down run for no gain.
“We just knew that he would probably give us the ball when put in those situations,” Burns said. “When you put an offense into situations where they can’t stay on script, it kind of tends to work in our favor.”
Ridder’s pass was so bad that it wasn’t clear what play he was trying to make. Woods was the only player in the area who was open.
“Trying to do too much,” Ridder said. “It’s a keeper (and) coming out there, everyone (was) pretty locked up. Got to be able to throw it away.”
The Falcons still had a chance to win after Ridder’s big mistake. The Panthers needed to drive 62 yards to be in position for a 50-yard field goal try. The wind and rain would make a long field goal attempt perilous. Carolina needed to get closer for a higher-percentage kick.
Panthers rookie quarterback Bryce Young, the No. 1 overall draft pick, has struggled all season. He had his breakout game against the Falcons. Young completed passes of 19, 20 and 18 yards to get the Panthers in scoring range. Carolina made it all the way to the 5-yard line before Eddy Pineiro made the 23-yard field goal as he clock ran out.
“We had opportunities to make plays and we let some of them slip,” Falcons cornerback A.J. Terrell said of the last drive.
The Falcons continued a pattern of allowing the go-ahead score on the opponent’s final drive. The Bucs did it last weekend. The Vikings and Cardinals did it in back-to-back weeks in November. But you can’t pin the Panthers loss on the defense when the Falcons scored seven points in nine full possessions and committed two turnovers.
The defense bailed out the Falcons once. After Bijan Robinson lost a fumble at Carolina’s 24 yard-line late in the third quarter, the Falcons held the Panthers to a field goal. The defense couldn’t save the Falcons again after Ridder’s interception.
“You turn the ball over twice, don’t get any takeaways and, among other things, we’ve got to score more than seven (points),” Smith said.
Ridder did some good things on Sunday. His 56-yard pass to Jonnu Smith was the first big play made by either team in the poor conditions. Ridder finished that drive by flipping the ball to Cordarrelle Patterson for a 2-yard touchdown. Seven of Ridder’s 12 completions went for first downs.
But those good plays ended up not mattering once Ridder made the terrible decision on the interception. That’s happened far too often during Ridder’s first full season as the starter.
“I felt like there’s times where it’s great, and times where it’s not great,” Ridder said of his performance.
Smith was asked about the inconsistent play of his team’s offense.
“All season, the thing that’s hurt us the most clearly is the turnovers,” Smith said.
That’s true. And it’s why it made no sense for Smith to trust his turnover-prone quarterback to make the right decision with the game and playoff chances on the line.