Falcons Playoff Dreams Crushed in 34-3 Loss to Panthers

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY SportsMike Smith watches the seconds tick off the clock on the Falcons 2014 season

The Atlanta Falcons 2014 season came to a disappointing end with a 34-3 home loss to the Carolina Panthers. In a “win and you’re in” playoff scenario for the Falcons, the team crashed and burned in a dominant one-sided Panthers victory. The Falcons finish the year 6-10, which will likely prompt significant changes to the team after the season.

Matt Ryan saw plenty of pressure all game long, as he was sacked six times and hit a total of 12 times. He finished the game completing 29 of 47 passes for 260 yards with two interceptions, both of which were pick-sixes. The Falcons run game was clamped down with Jacquizz Rodgers leading the team in rushing with 44 yards on nine carries. Roddy White led the team with eight catches for 104 yards. Julio Jones had a quiet game, catching just four passes for 58 yards. Harry Douglas added five grabs for 28 yards and Devin Hester had four catches for 32 yards. Matt Bryant scored the team’s only points of the game with a 21-yard field goal. Matt Bosher punted five times for an average of 49.2 yards with four punts placed inside the 20-yard line. Hester had three kickoff returns for an average of 35.7 yards, including a 66-yard return. The Falcons failed to capitalize with touchdowns on two trips to the red zone and were held to just 288 total yards despite having the ability to pad yards late in their attempt to come back down 24-3 at halftime. The Falcons converted seven of 16 third-down attempts and had three turnovers, which the Panthers converted into 21 points.

Defensively, the Falcons allowed 306 total yards to the Panthers and were competitive for the most part outside the points generated off turnovers. The Panthers were able to score touchdowns on two of three red-zone trips and converted four of 10 third-down attempts. The Panthers ran for 194 yards on the ground, including 51 from quarterback Cam Newton. Kemal Ishmael, Prince Shembo and Paul Worrilow all tied for the team lead with seven tackles. Shembo added a tackle for loss while Worrilow contributed a quarterback hit. Jonathan Babineaux (four tackles); Joplo Bartu (four tackles, one sack, one tackle for loss); Kroy Biermann (four tackles); Malliciah Goodman (three tackles, one tackle for loss); and Robert McClain (six tackles) all had notable games.

The Panthers offense got off to a strong start on the opening possession with Newton completing a pair of passes to tight end Greg Olsen for a combined 27 yards. Running back Jonathan Stewart then made a nice cut back on a seven-yard gain to convert a second down and get the Panthers into Falcons territory. Two plays later, Newton slipped a sack and ran up the middle for 13 yards. He followed that up with a nine-yard gain on a zone read on the next play. Two plays later, Stewart made a catch in the flat and turned upfield for an 11-yard gain to put the ball at the Falcons’ 11-yard line. But the Falcons defense finally stood firm as the Panthers gained just one yard on their next two plays. Newton then tried to scramble up the middle on a quarterback keeper on 3rd-and-9, but was stopped after a seven-yard gain to force a Panther field goal. Kicker Graham Gano hit from 21 yards to put the Panthers up 3-0 after a 12-play, 77-yard scoring drive that consumed over seven minutes of time off the clock.

Ryan missed on his opening throw of the ensuing drive, throwing behind Rodgers on a check down. But two plays later, White broke open for a 15-yard gain on a slant to convert the team’s first third down of the game. White then moved the chains again two plays later with a 13-yard grab, putting the ball into Panthers territory. Ryan’s next pass was nearly picked off by Panthers cornerback Josh Norman, who made a diving pass breakup along the sideline on a throw to Jones. On the ensuing third down, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly decked Rodgers over the middle to break up the pass and force the Falcons to punt.

Stewart started the next Panthers drive with a nine-yard run. Fullback Mike Tolbert then converted on a seven-yard run. Newton then dialed up wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin on a deep pass when he got behind Desmond Trufant, but the receiver dropped the ball. Two plays later on 3rd-and-1, Panthers wide receiver Philly Brown gained 28 yards on a reverse. Newton gained another first down by weaving through the Falcons defense on a zone read. Stewart ran for 11 yards to get the ball inside the red zone at the Falcons’ 11-yard line. Two plays later, tight end Ed Dickson got behind Worrilow for a five-yard score to lift the Panthers to a 10-3 lkead with 10 seconds left in the first quarter.

On the final play of the first quarter, Hester broke a tackle and then sprinted 66 yards for a big kickoff return, setting up the Falcons to start the ensuing possession at the Panthers’ 38-yard line. Rodgers was stuffed up the middle for a one-yard loss on the opening offensive play. After a shallow cross to Douglas for five yards, the Falcons had a 3rd-and-6. Ryan evaded pressure on that third-down play and hit Devonta Freeman over the middle on a seven-yard catch to move the chains. The Falcons found themselves in another third-down situation and Ryan hit Jones in a soft spot of the Panthers’ zone for a 14-yard gain. That put the ball at the Panthers’ seven-yard line. A throwback pass to Douglas netted the Falcons four more yards and set up a 2nd-and-goal from the three-yard line. Patrick DiMarco then got open in the flat, but dropped the wide-open would-be touchdown. On third down, Ryan got outside the pocket but couldn’t hit White in the end zone on his attempt to make a diving grab. The Falcons settled for a 21-yard field goal from Bryant and were on the scoreboard, down 10-3 with 10:36 left in the second quarter.

Benjamin suffered another drop on a quick out to start off the ensuing Panthers series. Biermann got pressure up the middle, but Newton side-stepped him and gained nine yards to set up a 3rd-and-1. But Trufant knocked down Newton’s pass to wide receiver Brenton Bersin to force a three-and-out and Panthers punt.

Norman broke up a cross to Jones to start the next Falcons possession. Freeman gained five yards on a run up the middle to set up a 3rd-and-5. But Kony Ealy avoided a block from Freeman and got the sack to force a Falcons three-and-out and punt.

Dwight Lowery went down with an injury on the first play of the Panthers next possession, after making a stop on a three-yard run by Stewart. Newton rolled out of the pocket and then found an open Philly Brown for a 28-yard gain to put the ball near midfield. Three plays later on third down, the Falcons brought Ishmael up the middle on a blitz and it forced an errant throw by Newton to Benjamin. The Panthers then punted once more with 5:26 left on the second-quarter clock.

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Roman Harper picks off Matt Ryan for first of two pick sixes

Charles Johnson beat Ryan Schraeder for a sack to start the next Falcons series. Schraeder then was flagged for a false start, pushing the Falcons back into a 2nd-and-20 at their nine-yard line. Ryan dialed up White on a deep pass, but the ball sailed. Panthers safety Roman Harper picked it off and ran it back 31 yards for a touchdown. That gave the Panthers a 17-3 lead with little more than four minutes left in the first half.

A holding call on Shembo on the ensuing kickoff backed the Falcons up to their own six-yard line. The team ran the ball twice to set up a 3rd-and-6 at the 10-yard line. Ryan was able to get out of the pocket and hit Hester for a 12-yard gain and get the Falcons out of their own territory. But on the next play, Ryan hit White down the seam for a 20-yard gain but the Falcons receiver was stripped by linebacker Adarius Glanton. Thomas Davis jumped on the loose ball and returned it 33 yards to the Falcons’ nine-yard line as the two-minute warning hit.

A low block penalty on Rodgers during the fumble return gave the Panthers five more yards, starting their next drive at the Falcons’ four-yard line. Newton just needed one play to push Carolina’s lead to 24-3. Newton kept the ball on a run and got some help from his surging offensive linemen to get the four-yard scoring run.

Ryan connected on his first three passes to move the Falcons 25 yards. But pressure got to him on the next two plays and Ryan was unable to connect with his receivers. Bosher punted the ball back to the Panthers with 43 seconds left in the first half. Stewart ran for three yards and the Panthers were content to let the first-half clock run out and take their 24-3 lead into halftime.

To start the second half, the Falcons tried another run to Rodgers, which was bottled up for a three-yard gain. Ryan then was dropped by Kawann Short and Davis on the next play for a sack and a nine-yard loss. On 3rd-and-16, Ryan was sacked again by Wes Horton to force a quick three-and-out and punt deep in their own territory.

The Panthers started their next drive at their 41-yard line. Newton’s first pass sailed incomplete thanks to a hit on him by Worrilow. But he was able to hit Benjamin for the first time of the game on a nine-yard completion to convert a 3rd-and-8 on the next play. Then Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery beat Robert McClain on a crossing pattern, gaining 18 yards. After a stuffed Tolbert run and an illegal shift penalty, the Panthers were backed up to 2nd-and-15. But Brown gained much of it back on an end-around for a 13-yard gain. Ishmael contributed on the tackle but left the game with an injury, putting the Falcons down to rookie backups in Dezmen Southward and Sean Baker at safety. Pressure then got to Newton on the ensuing third down, and Bartu got credited with the sack after stopping Newton when he tried to step up and scramble. Gano hit a 48-yard field goal to push Carolina’s lead to 27-3 with 8:43 left in the third quarter.

The Falcons dialed up a screen to Hester, but it gained only five yards. Freeman then was stuffed up the middle on a two-yard run setting up a 3rd-and-3. Ryan nearly threw another pick on a pass over the middle, with Panthers linebacker Davis breaking up the throw and forcing another Falcons three-and-out.

On the ensuing Panthers series, Newton targeted Baker on 3rd-and-2, but pressure from Jonathan Massaquoi helped disrupt the throw to Olsen. The Falcons defense had another stop and a quick three-and-out to try and give the offense another chance to get back into the game.

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Tre Boston

re Boston picks off Ryan for the second time and returns it for a touchdown

But Panthers punter Brad Nortman boomed a 72-yard punt thanks to Hester making a mistake in fielding it and the ball dribbled down to the Falcons’ six-yard line to start the next drive. On the second play of the drive, Jones made a nice contested grab along the sideline for a 10-yard gain. But pressure flushed Ryan again and he couldn’t connect with Jones over the middle on the next play. But two plays later on 3rd-and-10, Jones did make the grab on a deep cross for 20 yards. The Falcons quickly found themselves again in another 3rd-and-10 after two passes to Hester went nowhere. Thomas Davis decked White over the middle on a crossing pattern, and then caught up Ryan’s low throw for another interception. Davis returned it 50 yards for a touchdown, but Davis’ contact with White was flagged and deemed illegal, wiping out both the turnover and scoring play for the Panthers. Two plays later, Ryan connected with White for a 14-yard gain to move the ball into Panthers territory. But a pair of false starts on Justin Blalock and White then backed up the Falcons to a 2nd-and-20. White made a 12-yard catch, followed by a three-yard catch by Levine Toilolo as the Falcons opted to go for it on fourth down with less than a minute to go in the third quarter. But Ryan’s downfield heave to Douglas was picked off by Panthers safety Tre Boston, who returned it 84 yards for another Panthers defensive touchdown. The third quarter came to a close, and the Panthers had a 34-3 lead.

On their next possession, the Falcons were able to move the ball thanks to a 19-yard catch by White on the team’s first third down. Ryan then connected on his next four passes, moving the ball 37 more yards into the red zone. But a holding call on Blalock backed the Falcons up into a 1st-and-20. Star Lotulelei then dropped Ryan for a sack, pushing them back to 2nd-and-24 from the Panthers’ 29-yard line. Lotulelei then hit Ryan on third down and followed that up with another sack on fourth down to force a Falcons turnover on downs.

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Mike Smith walks off the field for likely the last time as Falcons head coach

The Panthers got the ball back at their 28-yard line with 11 minutes left in the game. They proceeded to run the ball to milk clock. A 13-yard run by Fozzy Whittaker on 3rd-and-11 helped extend their drive. Whittaker then converted another third down with a seven-yard run to put the ball into Falcons territory. The Falcons eventually made a stop, bottling up Tolbert for a one-yard loss to finally force a Panthers punt. But the Panthers were successful in milking over eight minutes off the fourth-quarter clock before giving the Falcons one final chance to get on the scoreboard.

The Falcons failed to do so, although they were able to move the ball into Panthers territory with little more than a minute to go. But then they opted to run the ball on their final four plays to not risk further punishment to Ryan. Rodgers was able to pad his stats with 33 yards on those final four runs, and the Falcons were content to take their loss without another score.

Rumors have circulated throughout the past month that Falcons head coach Mike Smith would be looking for new employment even if the team made the playoffs. The Falcons missing the playoffs almost certainly ensures Smith’s departure. Particularly given that the team has been in control of its own destiny after taking over first place in the NFC South after Week 11. It marks the second consecutive season where the Falcons failed to make the playoffs and finished with a losing record after coming very close to reaching the Super Bowl in 2012. Over the course of his seven years in Atlanta, Smith accumulated a 66-46 record and a 1-4 record in the playoffs. However, the Falcons have gone 10-22 the past two years.

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Aaron Freeman
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