And in the eyes of the Atlanta Falcons, it’s certainly not time to panic.
Their 30-20 defeat Sunday came at the hands of the Carolina Panthers, a team that had won just three games. And granted, the Falcons were dominated for 2 quarters, falling behind 23-0 at one point. But players insist it won’t take long to put the loss to their Interstate-85 rivals behind them and shift their focus to the postseason.
“We’re in a position in our season where we’ve got everything right in front of us, and we need to get back to work and worry about that,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said.
Ryan and others did express concern over yet another slow start offensively.
At halftime, the Falcons trailed 16-0 and had only 35 total yards and two first downs.
“That wasn’t our best effort, I can tell you that much, especially on the offensive side of the ball,” Falcons receiver Roddy White said. “We put our offense in a big hole in the first half. We didn’t convert on third downs. We didn’t do much of anything.
“The last couple of weeks, we’ve not been starting out the way we should on offense, and waiting around. Today, we waited around too long. We let one get away from us. These are the games we’re supposed to win, and needed to win.”
The Panthers clearly played with more emotion.
Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy promised “payback” and “punishment” for the Atlanta Falcons last week, and he and his Panthers teammates delivered on Sunday.
Despite playing without four starters and having 13 players on injured reserve, the Panthers dominated the NFC South champions as Cam Newton threw for 287 yards and two touchdowns and scored on a 72-yard run. Newton piled up a career-high 116 yards on the ground and the Panthers racked up 475 total yards to avenge an early season loss with a dominating performance against their Interstate-85 rivals.
Carolina’s defense was superb through 2 quarters building a 23-0 lead and holding a 356-86 edge in total yards to snap a five-game losing streak against the Falcons.
Carolina (4-9) came in with little to play for except to gain a measure of revenge on Ryan, whom they felt disrespected them after Atlanta’s 30-28 come-from-behind win earlier this season at the Georgia Dome. Hardy was upset when television cameras caught Ryan cursing at the Panthers sideline telling them to get off their field in the Sept. 30 game.
Hardy responded by saying last week the Panthers were a “better team” than the Falcons while adding a variety of trash talk.
After Sunday’s win Hardy turned the tables on the Falcons, repeating several times what Ryan told them back in Week 4 as he walked off the field. At one point Falcons kicker Matt Bryant returned fire at Hardy, saying “Watch us in January.”
Hardy left the locker room before reporters were allowed in.
After the game, Ryan downplayed the war of words.
“I don’t pay too much attention to it,” said Ryan, who threw for 342 yards and two scores and one interception. “They were better than us today, that’s for sure.”
It was all Carolina from the start.
The Panthers hadn’t won a coin flip all year until Sunday, causing team captain Jordan Gross to exalt at midfield by thrusting both arms into the air. Including one overtime game, the Panthers had lost 13 straight coin flips this season.
Carolina quickly took advantage, taking the opening kickoff and going 77 yards in 11 plays with Greg Olsen making a leaping grab from Newton in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
That set the tone for the first half.
By the time Graham’s Gano’s third field goal of the first half sailed through the uprights as time expired, the Panthers led 16-0 and had run 45 plays to Atlanta’s 13 and outgained the Falcons 270-35.
Led by Newton, who had some big runs on third-and-long, including a highlight-reel 14-yard scamper on third-and-11, the Panthers had 15 first downs to Atlanta’s two.
Carolina didn’t let up in the second half.
After the Panthers stuffed Atlanta on its first drive, Newton faked a handoff to DeAngelo Williams on a zone read option and raced 72 yards for a touchdown, getting an assist from receiver Steve Smith along the way. Smith took out two would-be tacklers with a big block around the 20 before Newton somersaulted into the end zone for a 23-0 lead early in the third quarter.
Atlanta came back, with Ryan converting a fourth-and-4 with a 4-yard shovel pass to Jason Snelling, setting up a short TD pass to White.
The Falcons came right back with Ryan hitting Julio Jones for an 11-yard scoring toss to cut the lead to 24-13. Atlanta’s 2-point conversion toss to White was ruled incomplete as officials said he bobbled the ball going out of bounds.
Atlanta got the ball back early in the fourth quarter and moved to midfield, but Ryan was flushed out of the pocket on fourth-and-7 and was intercepted by linebacker Thomas Davis with 6:19 remaining.
The Panthers, who’ve surrendered four fourth-quarter leads this season, put the game away on the next drive.
The Panthers capitalized on a defensive holding call by Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson on third-and-10 on their next possession as Williams caught a screen pass from Newton and raced 53 yards for a touchdown and a 30-13 lead.