By Adesina O. Koiki
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – On the play that ended up proving to be the most pivotal for the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the man with the surest hands on the team, running wide open and into the black paint of the Carolina Panthers end zone, ran underneath a perfectly-arched pass, waiting to secure a possible game-changing touchdown.
Literally, the ball went through those hands of Julio Jones and onto the Bank of America Stadium turf. Metaphorically, the Atlanta Falcons’ chance at a division title might have suffered the same fate.
Jones’ drop on a fourth-down play in the final quarter was the highlight of another disappointing offensive effort from the Falcons, who came up short in their comeback attempt in a 20-17 defeat to the Carolina Panthers. An early 10-point lead for the Falcons was wiped away by 20 unanswered points from the Panthers, with both of Carolina’s touchdowns during that run set up my Atlanta miscues on offense.
What was a promising start for the Falcons at 3-0 has now turned into a frustrating stretch in which they have lost four of five, with a number of mistakes on offense being the team’s undoing in most of the defeats.
“Disappointing division loss for us,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said in the postgame press conference. “It was a tale of two halves today. The sequence changed at the end of the first half and we didn’t answer enough times in the second half in all three phases.”
For the first 25 minutes of the contest, the Falcons could not have gotten out to a better start in its first division game of the season. Atlanta scored on its first possession, a 53-yard field goal from Matt Bryant. Two possessions later, quarterback Matt Ryan led the team on a 61-yard touchdown drive, throwing a 6-yard touchdown pass to the left flat to Mohamed Sanu for a 10-0 lead after the first quarter.
Sanu’s touchdown was set up by a rare Atlanta takeaway on defense, with safety Keanu Neal stripping and recovering the ball from Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart with Carolina driving in Falcons territory. The Falcons came into the game forcing just four turnovers all season, the fewest in the league, but ended up getting two in the first quarter alone after Neal once again forced a Stewart fumble in Atlanta territory. Desmond Trufant recovered the fumble at Atlanta’s 19-yard line.
Not only did Atlanta’s offense not capitalize on the Panthers’ mistakes, the inconsistency that has plagued the offense all season reared its head at the very end of the first half to allow the Panthers a route back into the game. On a fourth-and-1 from Carolina’s 35, Atlanta decided to go for it, partially moved to do so by Bryant suffering a leg strain on the field goal he made in the first quarter. Devonta Freeman was stuffed for no gain up the middle, and, six plays later, Carolina was in the end zone on a four-yard run by rookie Christian McCaffrey on the first play after the 2-minute warning.
Ryan then committed his only turnover of the game on the ensuing drive, throwing a pass over the middle intended for Taylor Gabriel – who fell while running his route – that was intercepted by safety Mike Adams, who returned it 40 yards to the Atlanta 31.
McCaffrey ran for 17 yards and caught a nine-yard pass on the first two plays of the Panthers’ drive after the interception. Two plays later, on a third down, Newton scrambled to his right and extended the ball over the goal line right before fumbling the ball into the end zone to give Carolina a 14-10 lead with 23 seconds left in the half.
Those two scores right before halftime marked the first time in Panthers history that they scored two touchdowns in the final two minutes of a half (either first or second).
The malaise on offense for Atlanta carried over into the second half, who went three-and-out on its two possessions in the third quarter. The second of those possessions ended with back-to-back Panthers sacks of Ryan, by Wes Horton and Mario Addison, which ended the quarter.
Carolina’s two possessions of the third quarter were 10-play and nine-play drives that resulted in two Graham Gano field goals, the latter giving Carolina a 20-10 lead.
Atlanta’s next possession finally yielded some big plays, with Jones and Justin Hardy both catching 19-yard passes from Ryan. Later in the drive, Atlanta faced a fourth-and-7 from the Carolina 39, forced to go for it given the deficit and the uncertainty of Bryant’s range on a field goal attempt. Under pressure from defensive lineman Star Lotuleilei, Ryan lobbed a ball deep down the middle of the field, with Jones beating Adams on a stop-and-go over the middle.
Somehow, as he was running underneath the ball in the end zone uncontested, Jones let the ball bounce off of his hands and chest, blowing a glorious opportunity to get the Falcons within one possession and reclaiming momentum.
“I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity,” said Jones, who had six receptions for a season-high 118 yards. “It was no excuses or anything like that. It’s just a missed [opportunity].”
It was a missed opportunity that Jones and Ryan have made a living out of in turning the Falcons into one of the most potent offenses in the league over the past few years.
“A hundred out of a hundred times, he’s going to make plays,” Ryan said about Jones’ drop in the postgame press conference. “He’s made more plays in this league than probably anybody. Sometimes, it’s happens. I’m not worried one bit about it.”
“We had other opportunities, too,” Ryan continued. “We had chances in the first and second quarter to come away with a lot more points than we did, and those ones are just as important.”
Atlanta did get within one possession on the next drive after a defensive stand. Ryan completed five of six passes on the drive, with his 19-yard touchdown to running back Tevin Coleman cutting the Falcons’ deficit to 20-17 with 3:25 remaining.
The Falcons had one final chance, getting the ball back just before the 2-minute warning. Ryan’s first pass of the drive was a three-yard loss to Freeman, and the next three passes all ended up incomplete.
After averaging 33.8 points per game last season, the Falcons have scored at least 34 points only once this season, the season-opening 34-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers. In the last five games, Atlanta has scored more than 17 points just once and has lost each of the games in which it did not break the 17-point barrier.