The Atlanta Falcons were able to shock the world with a 20-13 win over the undefeated Carolina Panthers, keeping their slim playoff hopes alive. The Falcons record goes to 8-7 with their second consecutive win over a previously 14-0 Panthers team with strong effort on both sides of the ball. The Falcons took a lead late in the third quarter and were able to hold off the Panthers with a pair of field goals and a defensive stand in the final minutes of the game.
Matt Ryan led the team, completing 23 of 30 passes for 306 yards with a touchdown despite the Falcons receivers being plagued with multiple drops. Devonta Freeman led the team on the ground with 73 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.
Julio Jones was his usual dominant self, catching nine passes for a season-high 178 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown. Roddy White had one of his best games of the season, catching five passes for 67 yards. Tamme nabbed four passes for 29 yards, snagging a couple of clutch passes throughout the game.
Kicker Shayne Graham made two of three field-goal attempts, with a 43-yard kick being partially blocked and falling short in the third quarter. That was followed up by made field goals of 37 and 54 yards later in the fourth quarter. Punter Matt Bosher kicked just one time for 25 yards, pinning the Panthers inside their own 20-yard line. Devin Hester had a single kickoff return for 29 yards and fair caught his lone punt return.
The Falcons generated 373 yards in total offense, including 296 in the air. Much of that aerial yardage came in the second half when the Falcons threw for 213 yards after only 83 in the first half. The Falcons were able to convert nine of 15 third-down attempts and one of two red-zone trips into touchdowns. The Falcons only turned the ball over once, leading to three Panthers points.
Defensively, the Panthers gained just 268 total yards, their lowest total since the first month of the season. The Panthers were able to find success on the ground with 155 rushing yards, but their passing attack’s 113 yards was their second lowest total of 2015. The Panthers converted four of 10 third-down attempts and one of two red-zone trips into touchdowns.
Cornerback Robert Alford led the Falcons with seven tackles on defense and added a pair of pass breakups. Phillip Adams (four tackles, two pass breakups), Jonathan Babineaux (one tackle, 0.5 sacks), Vic Beasley (four tackles, one sack, one pass breakup and one forced fumble), Kroy Biermann (three tackles, 0.5 sacks), Adrian Clayborn (one fumble recovery), Justin Durant (five tackles, one pass deflection), Ra’Shede Hageman (one tackle, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hit), Nate Stupar (four tackles) and Desmond Trufant (three tackles, one pass breakup) had notable games.
After winning the opening coin toss, the Falcons deferred to the second half, allowing the Panthers to receive the opening kickoff. The first play from scrimmage was a big run by Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker, who took a run to the left side for 16 yards. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dropped back to pass on the next play, but pressure up the middle forced him to throw the ball away out of bounds. Newton then hit wide receiver Ted Ginn on a comeback for a nine-yard gain to set up 3rd-and-1 from the Panthers 45-yard line. Whittaker converted on the run to the right, getting a nice second effort and breaking a tackle from Falcons linebacker O’Brien Schofield for a two-yard gain. Newton then was able to throw over Schofield and fellow linebacker Paul Worrilow on the next play to complete a 15-yard throw to tight end Greg Olsen in front of Alford. Two plays later Panthers wide receiver Corey “Philly” Brown made a sliding grab in front of Trufant for a nine-yard gain, setting up another 3rd-and-1 from the Falcons 29-yard line. Newton held onto the ball on a naked bootleg, running for five yards before he was pushed out of bounds by Biermann. Whittaker tallied a total of 16 yards on his next two runs to set the Panthers up at the Falcons eight-yard line. Newton kept it again on a run up the middle with running back Mike Tolbert making a nice block on Stupar, allowing Newton to go untouched for the eight-yard touchdown run. That gave Carolina a 7-0 lead after an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown that bled nearly six minutes off the first-quarter clock.
The Falcons started their opening series with a botched snap, which Ryan being able to hand the ball off to Freeman before he was dropped for a gain of zero yards by Panthers defensive end Jared Allen. Ryan then tried a comeback along the sideline to White, but the veteran receiver couldn’t reel in the low throw. Then Ryan’s next pass was dropped by Freeman on a quick screen. However White’s attempt to block Panthers cornerback Charles Tillman caused a scuffle after the whistle, with the Panthers defender being flagged for unnecessary roughness and gifting the Falcons a first down and 15 yards of field position. Three plays later, White made a nice grab over the middle on 3rd-and-2 for a 13-yard gain. Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei then bottled up Freeman’s next run, dropping him for a loss of one yard. Terron Ward gained six yards back on a run up the middle on the next play, bringing up a 3rd-and-5 for the Falcons at the Panthers 44-yard line. Freeman took the handoff on a draw play, made a nice juke move against Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly and then ran 13 yards for the first down. Three plays later, Tamme was able to convert a 3rd-and-4 with a six-yard catch on a quick out to get the Falcons into the red zone. Ryan’s next pass two plays later was an eight-yard throw to wideout Justin Hardy over the middle, setting up a 3rd-and-2 at the Panthers 11-yard line. Ryan dropped back to throw, scrambled and was able to juke Pro Bowl linebacker Thomas Davis outside of the pocket to gain seven yards to put the ball inside the five-yard line on the final play of the first quarter. On the opening play of the second quarter, Freeman was able to get to the edge on a sweep and run in the end zone untouched for a four-yard score, tying the game at 7-7. The Falcons scored on a 16-play, 80-yard drive that bled over nine minutes of clock before kicking it off back to the Panthers at the beginning of the second quarter.
Backup Panthers running back Cameron Artis-Payne took the first two plays, rushing for five yards on first down before Newton hit him in the flat for a seven-yard gain on second down. Newton then was able to escape the pocket and find wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery in the flat for another seven-yard gain. A six-yard run by Tolbert gave the Panthers another first down, which was followed up by an 11-yard throw from Newton to Brown over the middle, getting the Panthers in Falcons territory. Hageman was able to get off his block and deliver a big hit to Newton as he threw his next pass, causing the ball to sail out of bounds. Pressure got to Newton on the next play, forcing him to throw it away. Then on third down, Beasley, Babineaux and Clayborn were able to get in Newton’s face once more and force another overthrow out of bounds. The Panthers punted the ball back to the Falcons with 11:08 to go in the second quarter.
Ryan started the drive with a 19-yard completion to Jones on a deep comeback. The Falcons tried a play-action bootleg on the next play, but the Panthers were in great position. All Ryan could do was throw it in the dirt before taking a shot from a blitzing Davis. Pressure got to Ryan on the next play, with the Falcons quarterback able to avoid the first two rushers before being dropped for a sack by Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short. That set up a 3rd-and-12 and the Falcons dialed up Jones on a shallow cross, who was able to run after the catch for a 17-yard gain before being dragged down by Kuechly on a horse-collar tackle, tacking on another 15 yards to put the ball at the Panthers 38-yard line. Freeman’s next run was bottled up for a loss of two yards, which was followed by an incompletion on a back-shoulder throw to Hardy along the sideline. Jones dropped an underneath throw on 3rd-and-12, looking to run before he secured the catch, forcing the Falcons to punt with eight minutes left in the first half.
After being stood up on a three-yard run up the middle, Artis-Payne was able to find space and juke safety Ricardo Allen for a 31-yard gain. Ginn exited the game with a leg injury after blocking on the play. Alford was in tight coverage on the next play as Newton tried to hit wide receiver Devin Funchess over the middle. Newton did hit Cotchery in the flat on the next play for an 11-yard gain, putting the ball in Falcons territory. Two plays later, Whittaker looked to have daylight on a screen pass but Stupar was able to make a nice, diving tackle to trip him up after a two-yard gain, bringing about a 3rd-and-8. Newton dropped back to throw on the next down, couldn’t find any open receivers and opted to tuck it and run. The Panthers quarterback was able to carry several defenders and reach across for the first down, but didn’t get a good initial spot from the officials. The Panthers challenged the spot and got the officials to move the ball up half a yard, which allowed for the conversion after another measurement. Artis-Payne then was able to shake another Falcons defender and gain nine yards. Biermann and Babineaux were able to get pressure on Newton on the next play, dropping the quarterback for a loss of 16 yards on a sack as the two-minute warning hit. On 3rd-and-17, Adams was able to step in front of a deep out to Brown and snag the ball in mid-air. But he did not secure it as he was landing, allowing Brown to reach in and strip it for an incompletion. The Panthers punted it with 1:52 left in the first half and it was downed at the one-yard line.
The Falcons dialed up a quick slant to Jones, who bobbled the ball before securing the 10-yard completion. After a six-yard completion to Tamme, the Falcons opted to run out the last 33 seconds of the first half after a three-yard run. The Falcons settled for a 7-7 ballgame going into halftime with them set to receive to start the third quarter.
The Falcons started their ensuing series to start the second half with a pair of runs by Freeman, which gained just two yards. Ryan then lobbed a throw to Jones, who shook Panthers cornerback Josh Norman after the catch for a big 25-yard gain. Ryan dialed up Jones on the next play, but he couldn’t secure the ball against his body for an incompletion on a crossing pattern. Jones left the field for a breather after that play and Ryan turned to White, who made a 16-yard grab on a crossing pattern to convert. Two plays later, Freeman got the carry on a zone-read option and took it 11 yards up the middle. Jones reentered the game and a quick screen to him was quickly bottled up by Norman for a loss of four yards. Jones then caught a six-yard pass over the middle on the next play to set up a 3rd-and-8. Ryan couldn’t find an open receiver and when he tried to escape the pocket, he was dropped by Short for the second time on a sack. The Falcons opted for a 43-yard field goal, but Graham’s kick was partially blocked and fall well shy of the uprights, giving the Panthers the ball at their 33-yard line with 8:22 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers ran an option play to start the ensuing series, with Newton pitching the ball to Cotchery, who ran for 16 yards. Then Newton hit Olsen on a throw in the flat for an 11-yard gain. Two plays later the Panthers caught the Falcons sleeping as they attempted to substitute several defenders off the field. After a fast snap, Newton kept it and ran 18 yards, juking Alford in the process of the big gain. The Falcons were flagged for both offsides and 12-men on the field penalties, but both were declined in lieu of the big gain. Newton attempted another run on a zone-read option, but was bottled up for no gain up the middle. Newton ran it again on a quarterback sweep, but was dropped after a gain of one yard to bring about a 3rd-and-9 from the Falcons 15-yard line. Pressure by Beasley flushed Newton out of the pocket and forced him to throw it away, compelling the Panthers to settle for a field goal. Kicker Graham Gano hit the 33-yard field goal to give the Panthers a 10-7 lead with 5:26 left in the third quarter after an eight-play, 52-yard scoring drive.
Freeman was stuffed on his first-down run for a gain of one yard. The ball was punched out by Tillman, but the Falcons running back was ruled down by contact. Ryan was then hit as he threw on a blitz from Davis, but managed to hit Tamme before the contact for a 12-yard gain. Ryan was slow to get up after the big hit from Davis. On the next play, the Falcons quarterback tripped over the feet of center Mike Person before he could hand it off to the running back, prompting a loss of four yards. Freeman then gained a single yard on a throw into the flat, bringing about a 3rd-and-13. Ryan was able to avoid initial pressure and break out of the pocket, signalling Jones to head deep. The Falcons passer threw up a lob to the receiver with Kuechly and safety Kurt Coleman trailing him. Coleman stumbled and Jones made a spectacular grab over Kuechly, high-pointing the ball over the Panthers linebacker and then running the rest of the way for a 70-yard touchdown, regaining the lead for the Falcons with 2:12 left in the third quarter.
Alford was there on second down of the ensuing Panthers drive, dropping Cotchery for a one-yard gain on a quick throw into the flat. That brought up a 3rd-and-5, which Newton converted when he was able to escape the pocket and outrun Clayborn, Babineaux and linebacker Philip Wheeler for a six-yard gain. Newton then hit Cotchery over the middle for a five-yard gain to bring the third quarter to a close. The Panthers started the fourth quarter with a run to Artis-Payne that was stuffed for one yard. On 3rd-and-4, Newton tried to hit Brown on a deep throw along the sideline but the receiver couldn’t secure the ball and it popped up out of bounds. Alford nearly snagged the interception, but couldn’t maintain control before going out of bounds. That prompted the Panthers to punt the ball, which went into the end zone for a touchback. But a holding penalty against tight end Tony Moeaki cost the Falcons 10 yards, starting their ensuing series at their 10-yard line.
The Falcons went back to Jones on another deep throw, with Ryan hitting the receiver on a 30-yard deep cross. Freeman was then able to break outside on the next play for a nine-yard gain. Two plays later on 3rd-and-1, Freeman found more space up the middle on a 14-yard gain to put the ball into Panthers territory. On the ensuing third down, a false start on left guard Andy Levitre pushed the Falcons back five yards to a 3rd-ad-10. Then Person had a high snap which Ryan couldn’t catch in mid-air, and Norman was able to scoop up the loose ball at the Falcons 48-yard line and returned it 12 yards before being brought down by Levitre.
The Panthers took over at the Falcons 36-yard line with 9:27 left in the third quarter. Olsen snagged Newton’s first-down pass for nine yards before Hageman was able to wrap up Whittaker for a loss of two yards on second down. That brought about a 3rd-and-3 and Olsen was unable to snag the crossing pattern with Beasley being able to create some pressure on Newton. That forced the Panthers to settle for a 47-yard field goal from Gano, cutting the Falcons’ lead to 14-13 with eight minutes left in the game.
White snagged the opening pass on the next series, beating Tillman for a 15-yard gain over the middle by shielding the defender with his body. Ryan was able to avoid the pressure and shovel the ball to Freeman, who took the pass and danced his way to a 12-yard gain. Freeman was able to run right off tackle for another 12-yard gain, putting the ball into Panthers territory. Ward entered the game to give Freeman a breather, but was immediately stopped for a three-yard loss. The Panthers dialed up the blitz and Ryan immediately checked it down to Freeman for a four-yard gain to bring about a 3rd-and-9. White snagged the slant to convert with a 17-yard gain. The Panthers read the next run play perfectly, collapsing the edge and stopping Freeman for a loss of four yards. Freeman then split out wide on the next play and was able to get open, but dropped the throw. On 3rd-and-14, the Panthers blitzed again and were able to rush Ryan’s throw to Hardy that was stopped well shy of the sticks after a seven-yard gain. The Panthers burned their second timeout of the half with 2:28 left in the game before the Falcons settled for a field goal. Graham booted the 37-yarder right down the middle, extending Atlanta’s lead to 17-13.
Tolbert snagged a checkdown in the flat for a 12-yard gain and was able to stop the clock by getting out of bounds. Tolbert snagged a one-handed catch over the middle for five yards just before the two-minute warning hit. Adams was able to break up Newton’s next pass on a throw to Cotchery, bringing up third down. Durant settled into the throwing lane, deflecting a crossing pass to Ginn. That brought about 4th-and-5 with 1:53 left in the game. Newton’s pass to Olsen was off the mark with Godfrey in tight coverage, giving the Falcons the ball back with 1:48.
With the Panthers having one timeout left, the Falcons were in prime position to bleed plenty of time off the clock even without gaining a first down. But a false start by Person to start the drive pushed them back five yards. The Panthers then burned their final timeout with 1:44 left in the game after a two-yard run by Freeman. The clock was stopped after a three-yard run by Freeman after an illegal formation penalty against tight end Levine Toilolo. Then after a one-yard run by Freeman, the clock was stopped once more by a holding call on Freeman on 3rd-and-10. With 1:35 left in the game, head coach Dan Quinn risked a long field goal that could’ve given the Panthers prime field position if Graham missed the 54-yard kick. But the veteran kicker nailed the kick and the Falcons’ lead went to 17-13 with 90 seconds left in the game.
The Panthers started their last series with a 19-yard completion to Brown on a deep in route. But the Falcons’ pressure was able to get to Newton on second down thanks to Beasley beating Panthers right tackle Mike Remmers with a speed rush, causing a sack-strip. Clayborn fell on the loose ball and the Falcons took over at the Panthers 26-yard line with 1:02 left in the game. The Falcons went into victory formation for two plays, running out the clock and sealing the win.
The Falcons kept their slim playoff hopes alive with the win, with the ability to steal a wildcard spot if the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings both manage to lose their final two games and if the Falcons can win next week against the New Orleans Saints in the regular-season finale. The Falcons hope to nab their second NFC South win of the season by beating the Saints, who handed the team their first loss of the season in Week Five with a 21-31 game on Thursday Night. The Falcons will play the Saints in the Georgia Dome, where they’ve won two of their last three matchups. Their most recent win came in a 37-34 season-opening overtime victory last year. Should the Falcons pull off the victory, they will earn their first winning season under Quinn and their first since the 2012 season. Since quarterback Matt Ryan joined the team in 2008, the Falcons are 5-1 in back-to-back home stands when they win the initial contest. They are 1-0 in such contests in 2015.