I’m honestly not surprised that the now 11-2 Atlanta Falcons lost to the now 4-9 Carolina Panthers, and I’m not at all surprised that Carolina QB Cam Newton had another big day against Atlanta. What did surprise me was how flat the Falcons looked coming into a time of year when they needed to look fired up and ready to prove all doubters wrong.
Instead it was the Panthers who came out playing inspired football, having nothing more to play for than pride and the opportunity to break a 5-game losing streak against their divisional older brother. If the Falcons were looking to gain a little respect from the national media, this was not the way to do it.
The Panthers imposed their will on both sides of the ball for most of the game, beating both the Atlanta offensive and defensive lines in the trenches, and showing real grit and toughness. The only time Atlanta was able to get any momentum going on offense was when they stayed in a no-huddle set and relied on short passes to keep the ball moving. Falling behind in a deep hole early kept the running game from ever becoming a factor for Atlanta.
On defense the Falcons weren’t able to generate any pressure on Newton, and when they did break through, Newton used his strength and speed to turn what looked like to be a sure sack into a huge gain for the Panthers. His 72-yard touchdown scamper honestly looked like it broke the spirit of the Falcons.
Now is when a lot of questions will begin to crop up about the Falcons, some of them legitimate and some of them blowing things out of proportion. But head coach Mike Smith and QB Matt Ryan are going to have to answer them all, regardless of the amount of buckshot in them.
Things aren’t looking terrible for Atlanta. They are still 11-2 and have a fairly comfortable lead over everyone else in the NFC, so it shouldn’t be looked at like Atlanta needs to sound all alarms, but they do need to keep from lumbering through the end of the season. Perhaps a big loss to a divisional rival will be the smack in the face that wakes them up.
One thing is certain – the Falcons are going to have to start playing some better football in the last three regular season games and make sure the offense is clicking on all cylinders (rather than sputtering) as they head into the playoffs, because heading into the postseason smoldering rather than on fire could mean the difference in another early playoff exit, and a run all the way to New Orleans.