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 ½ 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.
The Panthers clearly played with more emotion.
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 rivals.
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. Carolina defensive end Greg 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.
The game was all Carolina from the start.
Carolina took the opening kickoff and went 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.
NOTES: The Panthers played without starters wide receiver Brandon LaFell, running back Jonathan Stewart, linebacker James Anderson and safety Charles Godfrey. ... Panthers coach Ron Rivera ended his news conference early after starting to get emotional talking about the comeback of Thomas Davis, who has battled back from three torn ACLs to be a major contributor this season. ... Atlanta had won eight of the past nine games against Carolina before Sunday’s loss.