By Jason Huber. December 24, 2016. CHARLOTTE, NC — In their final home game of the season, the Carolina Panthers’ last glimmer of playoff hope came to an abrupt end on Saturday when they fell to the visiting Atlanta Falcons, 33-16 at Bank of America Stadium. It was Carolina’s second loss of the season to Atlanta and this one put any Panthers hope for a repeat appearance in the Super Bowl firmly to rest.
Photographic images by David Scearce for Blowing Rock News
QB Matt Ryan was again at the helm of a commanding Atlanta (10-5) offense. Completing 27-of-33 passes, his 277-yard, 2-TD performance was near flawless and brought his 2-game totals vs. the Panthers (6-9) in 2016 to 780 yards passing and six touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Carolina’s struggling offense could never keep the Panthers in the game as they fell to 1-4 against division rivals. Some will disparage the play of quarterback Cam Newton, but Saturday’s matchup saw the 5th combination of starters on the offensive line for Carolina – hardly conducive to consistently successful run blocking or pass coverage.
Newton had his worst performance of the season, completing 18-for-43 passes and putting up a 44.5 quarterback rating.
“We didn’t start fast as an offense,” Newton told reporters afterwards. “We couldn’t get into a rhythm and that can’t happen. Obviously we would have wanted to have better results, especially for our last home game, but that’s football.”
You are not going to beat good teams by kicking field goals.
Carolina head coach Ron Rivera quickly got to the heart of his team’s trials by highlighting the Panthers’ inconsistency in scoring touchdowns once they get into the red zone – something they have battled all year.
“(Scoring) 16 points means you kicked three field goals,” Rivera observed. “You are not going to beat good teams by kicking field goals.”
Back in Week 4, Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones put up a 300-yard receiving game while shredding the Carolina defense. If there was a bright spot on Saturday, the Panthers held Jones to just 60 yards this time around.
However, Ryan made his case for this NFL season’s “Most Valuable Player” by getting players not named Jones involved in the offense. He became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw TD-scoring completions to 13 different receivers in a single season.
Two of the offensive threats Ryan got involved: running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. With rushing prowess they pushed Atlanta down the field quickly in the first drive on the game. Their rushing success contributed to convincing play-action during the series, with Ryan throwing a 26-yard touchdown to tight end Joshua Perkins for the opening 7-0 lead.
The touchdown gave Ryan a Falcons record of most touchdowns passes in a single season with 33.
Rivera said part of the early game struggles was being unable to stop the Falcons’ play–action execution.
We just missed plays — and that is disappointing.
“You have to be able to stop the run early and get them in position where they are not going to be able to throw effectively off of play-action,” Rivera said. “We just missed plays and that is disappointing.”
Carolina had a chance to answer Atlanta’s opening scoring drive when running back Fozzy Whittaker returned the following kick-off for 37-yards. That gave the Panthers good field position to start the next possession and they were able to convert on fourth down at their own 48 yard line to extend the drive, but the Falcons’ rookie safety Brian Poole intercepted a Newton pass and returned it 24-yards to put the visitors in prime position for another score.
Atlanta was not able to find the end zone after Poole’s INT, but it still led to points with the first of four field goals on the day for Matt Bryant, this one a 51-yarder to expand Atlanta’s lead, 10-0.
Playing with a hurt shoulder the last few weeks and listed as questionable to start, Newton discounted any speculation that his shoulder played a part in the team’s offensive struggles.
“I’m not going to blame anything – (except)my production,” Newton said. “(My) production hasn’t been solid, and that’s me. I can’t point to something and say, ‘Well, this is the reason’….”
I’m not going to blame anything except my own production.
Besides his ailing shoulder, the Newton-led offense might also have suffered from inconsistent pass protection and less than perfect run blocking from the offensive line. Saturday’s game saw the fifth combination of interior line starters of the season for Carolina. Credit Atlanta’s defense for exploiting the Panthers’ vulnerabilities, including two INTs and a pair of QB sacks, while limiting Carolina’s workhorse star running back, Jonathan Stewart, to just 50 yards rushing on 11 carries – 20 of those yards on one carry.
Newton began the game one-for-nine passing and a 0.0 passing rating, while Atlanta’s offense continued to use the dual rushing threat of Freeman and Coleman to set up Bryant for a 48-yard field goal — and a 13-0 lead.
If there was a bright spot for Carolina, it came in the second quarter when Newton hurled an 18-yard pass to future Hall of Fame tight end Greg Olsen along the left sideline. The catch made Olsen the first tight end in NFL history to eclipse 1,000 or more yards in three consecutive seasons. The 10-year NFL pro finished the game with 59 yards, bringing his total to 1,059 on the season.
It is an accomplishment that Olsen knew was coming, but was still honored to have reached.
“I’m never the flashiest guy or anything like that,” Olsen noted to reporters afterwards, “but just to be productive in the NFL encompasses a lot of things that I have tried to pride myself on,” Olsen said. “Be productive. Be reliable. And be durable. There are so many things (involved with) having the opportunity to put up those numbers three years in a row.”
Traded to the Panthers from the Chicago Bears prior to the 2011 season, Olsen has proven to be a key player for Carolina, including a run to the Super Bowl last season.
You’re damn right I want to do it.
“I was asked about it in pre-season and I said, ‘You’re damn right, I want to do it.’ It was something that I set out (to do)and took a lot of pride in trying to accomplish (it). To accomplish something that no one else has in this position, I’ll be able to forever hold on to that as my career comes to an end,” Olsen said.
Olsen said that while it was a big personal accomplishment, he owes a lot of credit to his quarterback. Olsen and Newton shared a big hug, embracing a moment that was six years in the making.
But Newton had a different view of the Olsen’s record-setting stats.
“He has made my life extremely easy,” Newton said. “It’s just the little things. It’s being an accountable teammate, on and off the field. Greg’s a person who is an unbelievable ear (when you need to talk with someone). He’s an unbelievable leader and he’s an unbelievable person.”
Olsen’s record helped the Panthers downfield for their first score. It wasn’t a TD, but placekicker Graham Gano got the home crowd back into the game with a 31-yard field goal after a six-play drive to make it a 13-3 game.
Ryan responded by throwing another touchdown pass, this one to tight end D.J. Tialavea, who was just signed to the active roster on Saturday from the Falcons’ practice squad, giving Atlanta a 20-3 lead.
Just two years ago Tialavea was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment, working two jobs 15 hours a day to make ends meet while continuing to train for an NFL opportunity. On Saturday, he was one of the multiple threats Atlanta got involved to defeat Carolina.
“All I know is that every play that I got in, I would try to go 100 percent and leave it all on the field,” Tialavea said. “You never know if this is the only game you’ll ever play so I wanted to go play hard with no regrets.”
You never know if this is the only game you’ll ever play so I wanted to go play hard, with no regrets.
At the two-minute warning in the first half, Newton threw another interception giving Atlanta one more chance to score before halftime. Bryant attempted a 30-yard field goal but defensive tackle Vernon Butler blocked the kick leaving the score 20-3 at the half.
“It’s just the thing we do,” Butler aid. “Me and KK (Kawann Short), both of us could probably block it. Just get your hands up and when you have long arms you can block it.”
The Panthers came out in the second half looking for momentum. They worked themselves downfield, but an almost-completed TD pass – and injury to intended receiver Devin Funchess on the play – resulted in Carolina settling for a 40-yard Gano field goal, narrowing the deficit to 20-6.
After another Falcons field goal (Bryant, 29 yards), Newton connected with Benjamin for a 26-yard touchdown. It capped a seven-play drive that brought Carolina to within 10 points. The touchdown was only Benjamin’s second since week four. With all the negatives in the game, Benjamin proved to be a bright spot on the day.
“When you allow Benji (Kelvin Benjamin) to be him, things like that will flash across your face in amazement. That’s just a result of him doing 110 percent. That’s all you can ask for,” Newton said.
Now just a two-possession game, the Panthers were within reach the stage was set for making it even tighter when they forced Atlanta to a third-and-21 in the third quarter. However, Ryan hit Coleman for a 31-yard pass-catch-and-run down the right sideline to give Atlanta a first down and maneuver out of trouble.
Rivera was not happy his team’s breakdown on Atlanta’s long third down conversion.
“We allowed ourselves to get out-leveraged,” Rivera said. “At that point, what you really want them to do is throw the ball in front of you and that’s unfortunate. We just didn’t stay where we were supposed to be. We might have been able to cause something different but at the end of the day we just didn’t execute.”
You have to go make the play.
To cap off the conversion and make one of the biggest plays of the game, Coleman broke away from a tackle by cornerback James Bradberry for a 55-yard touchdown run to give Atlanta a 30-16 lead.
Bradberry attempted to strip the ball and safety Tre Boston thought Bradberry would make the tackle and lost coverage of Coleman.
“I thought James (Bradberry) was going to make the tackle,” Boston said. “I’m a little beat up so I thought I could let it fall right in front of me. It didn’t happen like that. You have to go attack things. You have to go make the play.”
The play put Coleman and Freeman both over 100 all-purpose yards for the day.
“We know how important it is to get the run game going,” Freeman said. “We understand and we know that when we line up that receiver only gets one-on-ones, so we know it’s a mismatch. We’re aggressive with that and we expect the ball.”
The Falcons completed the season sweep of the Panthers and officially eliminated them from playoff contention with another 50-yard field goal from Bryant as fans left the stadium. Well before game’s end, the stadium was almost empty.
Newton was sacked on Carolina’s final offensive play of the day. It seemed a fitting summation for the Panthers underwhelming season.
We didn’t give ourselves much of a chance.
“It wasn’t a very good day for us, especially offensively,” Olsen said. “They got off to a good start, we got off to a poor start. We were never really able to find our groove. We didn’t give ourselves much of a chance.”
Just a year removed from a 15-1 season and a Super Bowl appearance, the Panthers will finish this season under .500 and hope to find their second divisional win next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the final game of the regular season – and there will be no playoffs for Carolina.
Even with the struggles this season, Newton had no reason to be disappointed post game. After a four year post-season run, the team feels a longer offseason will only set them up better for next year.
“Disappointed, but there is hope for the future. We had a long run,” Newton said. “It’s time for guys to take a sabbatical, so to speak, just to get away from it. We have one game left, and there are guys that I know for a fact will give everything they have and more.”