The Carolina Panthers punched the Atlanta Falcons right in the mouth Sunday afternoon. They did it in the Falcons’ own backyard.
And the Falcons have still not gotten up and punched back.
In a do-or-die game for players, coaches and executives, the Falcons were embarrassed 34-3 by their division rival. The loss ended Atlanta’s season at 6-10, while the 7-8-1 Panthers move on to host a playoff game as the NFC South champions.
The list of issues for the Falcons is long. Matt Ryan had no protection. He was sacked six times, the most this season. The improving offensive line was dominated by Carolina’s line of scrimmage. The O-Line had not allowed a sack in the last two games and only two in the previous four games. But on Sunday, they were dominated by Charles Johnson and Star Lotulelei.
Atlanta’s running game was non-existent. They finished with 63 yards on 16 carries without starter Steven Jackson. Ryan threw two pick-six touchdowns in what was one of the worst games of his career.
The Falcons had no cohesion on offense and looked out of sorts all day.
Defensively, the Falcons were hit early and could not recover. Carolina had 105 yards rushing in the first quarter and finished with 194 for the game. The Falcons had allowed only 102 rushing yards in the last two games.
Cam Newton did what he needed to do, with only a 10-16 mark passing the ball and 51 rushing yards on six carries. The Panthers took advantage of Atlanta’s mistakes and shut the Falcons down.
Of course, it didn’t help matters when things happened like Patrick DiMarco dropping a sure touchdown pass, or when Ryan put the ball in Carolina’s hands.
To say it wasn’t Atlanta’s day is simplifying matters. Fact is, the Falcons had it laid out perfectly for themselves. All they had to do was win the season finale at home to make the playoffs and to host a playoff game, and instead they wet the proverbial bed.
The result will likely mean drastic changes, starting with head coach Mike Smith, who is expected to be fired in the next 48 hours. After the game, Smith tried to deflect the talk of his future, but talked about his surprise in how the final game unfolded.
“Shocked at the way the football game went,” Smith said. “I thought we had a good week of preparation. We didn’t execute obviously across the board.
“You guys saw the game. Very disappointed in terms of how we performed. Not acceptable at all.”
“We didn’t do a very good job today,” said Ryan. “Hats off to Carolina. They came down and played the way you need to play in these type of situations. They came out and executed at a high level and we did not across the board. When you do that, you’re going to lose game. That was disappointing.”
Ryan’s face was filled with shock. The Falcons had tremendous confidence coming off the solid performance last week in New Orleans. But Sunday, reality set in and it was a shock to a team that believed they would host a playoff game next week.
“I think everybody is very disappointed,” Ryan said. “Obviously you come into this game understanding what the consequences are - both positive and negative. As a player and as an athlete you never allow yourself to think about it going in the wrong direction. You always have to have a positive mindset going into it and I think guys did all week. Then when it doesn’t happen, it’s tough. It’s disappointing. That’s part of the deal when you don’t play well. You have to live with the consequences of that.
We had been playing our best football. The second half of the season we started playing a little bit better. I don’t think anybody in that locker room expected to go out there and play the way we played today. From that standpoint, it’s very disappointing.”
Cornerback Desmond Trufant was having a tough time coming to terms with the performance.
“Shocking,” Trufant said. “I’m still shocked by it. We controlled our own destiny. We had all the opportunities, regardless of what happened previously throughout the weeks of the season, we still had the opportunity to make it. We just didn’t show up. It’s hard to swallow. If I’m going to lose, I’m going to go out swinging. We didn’t do that. It wasn’t good.”
Of all weeks for the Falcons to have their worst week of the season, this was not good timing. Smith said the team had a good week of practice, which made the performance even more surprising.
Smith said, “Today’s game, like most games in the NFL, is about winning the line of scrimmage. We did not do that on either side of the football. Offensively our quarterback was under duress all day. We were not able to establish a running game. Then I thought after the first couple of drives at least we played a little bit better defensively. We lost the turnover battle. You can’t give the ball to our opponent and have them return it for touchdowns multiple times. That was the difference in the game.”
Smith’s message to the players after the game sounded like a somber event. He told the media what he said to the disappointed players following the loss.
“This is not the way you want to finish,” Smith told them. “I appreciate the hard work all this season, but this is not the way you want to finish. Hopefully the guys that are going to be here in the future will remember it.”
Whether Smith will be part of that future is yet to be seen. But Sunday’s performance likely signaled the end and was the nail in the coffin of Smith’s tenure as Atlanta’s head coach.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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