By David Rogers. December 31, 2017. ATLANTA, GA – As it turns out, the 2017-18 NFL season is not over for either the Carolina Panthers or the Atlanta Falcons, but the New Year’s celebrations are just a little more festive for the Falcons Sunday night after their convincing, 22-10 win over the visiting Panthers at Mercedes Benz Stadium.
COVER IMAGE: Atlanta running back Tevin Coleman finds clean air over a Panther defender. Photographic image by Braxton Critcher for Blowing Rock News.
There was little for the numerous Carolina Panthers fans sprinkled throughout the grandstands to celebrate. Maybe there was winning the coin toss before the game. Or maybe that Carolina was not flagged for its first penalty until less than five minutes remained in the third quarter. But that was about it.
The Atlanta Falcons were playing for life as the third NFC South entry in the playoffs as the last “wild card.” The Panthers had SOME playoff position guaranteed. Had they known that division rival New Orleans would lose to last place Tampa Bay, maybe they would have put more effort into this Sunday encounter in the heart of Georgia.
And yes, Tampa Bay did defeat New Orleans. The Buccaneers were behind 24-23 with less than two minutes remaining when quarterback Jameis Winston captained the Bucs offense 95 yards in 11 plays, hurling a 39 yard TD pass to rookie wide receiver Chris Godwin with nine seconds remaining on the clock. to put the host Floridians ahead, 29-24. Taking no chances, the Tampa Bay coaching braintrust went for a two-point conversion, and Winston hit veteran WR Mike Evans successfully to insure at least a tie in the event New Orleans succeeded in the nine remaining seconds.
Because the Saints lost, a Panthers victory would have meant they won the NFC South and would host a wild card game next week in Charlotte.
But the Panthers (11-5) didn’t win, so instead will make a return trip to New Orleans as the fifth seed out of the six eligible NFC competitors, behind Philadelphia (13-3), Minnesota (13-3), Los Angeles (11-5), and New Orleans (11-5). Although Carolina and the Saints have identical 11-5 records, New Orleans owns the tiebreaker by earning wins in both regular season encounters.
To be fair, Carolina’s defense did OK, at least for the first half. Aided by an abundance of Falcon penalties that seemed to disrupt promising, offensive possessions at the most inopportune times, these two longtime rivals entered halftime in a 7-7 deadlock.
But “tie” was also deceptive because Atlanta was winning the statistical battle in spite of its penalties. Total net yards of offense favored ATL, 195-112. Much of that offensive output was accounted for by veteran quarterback Matt Ryan connecting with running back Devonta Freeman on short passes as he came out of the backfield. Ryan targeted Freeman nine times in the first half, connecting on eight of them for 75 yards.
Meanwhile, the Panthers’ Cam Newton was simply “off” on this day, finishing the afternoon with 14 completions in 34 pass attempts for 180 yards and one touchdown – that was more than offset by three interceptions.
There was little to explain some of Newton’s aerials. Perhaps he was just not on the same page on this night with his go-to tight end, Greg Olsen. The veteran All-Pro was targeted by Newton more than any other receiver, nine times, but they only were successful once for a 10-yard gain. Most of the other times Newton’s passes were so wide of the mark it almost looked like he was expecting Olsen to cut back on a timing route, but somebody forgot to tell his favorite receiver.
If there was a bellwether for this evening’s outcome, it was the third quarter. Carolina won the pre-game coin toss and deferred, meaning they would receive the second half kickoff. Sadly, the Queen City’s favorite sons were stymied by, in succession,  a three-and-out;  an interception; and  another three-and-out. That’s right, the Carolina Panthers’ vaunted offense managed a big fat goose egg in first downs in the pivotal quarter of the game.
While not prolific on offense in the third quarter, the Falcons at least produced two field goals, from 30 and 42 yards by veteran placekicker Matt Bryant to take a still tenuous, 13-7 lead heading into the final stanza. If there was a statistic that stood out, it was Atlanta’s 314 yards of total offense compared to just 128 for the Panthers.
The two NFC South rivals opened the fourth quarter by trading hard-earned field goals, but when Bryant hammered a 56-yard rocket through the uprights to give Atlanta a 19-10 lead with just 6:37 left to play, things started looking bleak for the visitors from Charlotte.
And when Newton & Co. followed yet another three-and-out with still another interception on the very first play of the next Panther possession, folks started humming the refrain made famous by Dandy Don Meredith on Monday Night Football decades ago, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over…”
Carolina returns to New Orleans next Sunday (kickoff at 4:40 pm Eastern Standard Time) hoping that the third time is the charm in facing the Saints. Carolina lost to New Orleans 34-13 at home on September 24th, then were defeated 31-21 in New Orleans on December 3rd.
- Total Offense — ATL 371, CAR 248
- Net Yards Rushing — CAR 87, ATL 60
- Net Yards Passing — ATL 311, CAR 161
- Turnovers, Interceptions Thrown — CAR 3, ATL 0
- Field Goals — ATL 5-of-5, CAR 1-of-1
- Touchdowns — ATL 1, CAR 1
- Penalties — ATL 7-60, CAR 5-35