Falcons at a loss to explain flat performance

Veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said he could hear Atlanta fans jumping off the bandwagon after the team’s loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday

jjones@charlotteobserver.comDecember 10, 2012 

Tony Gonzalez said he could already hear it from the visitor’s locker room at Bank of America Stadium.

The veteran tight end said he could hear Atlanta Falcons fans jumping off the bandwagon after the team’s 30-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

The Falcons (11-2) lost to the Carolina Panthers (4-9) for the first time in six games. But despite the team having already wrapped up the NFC South title, Gonzalez says he knows the Falcons’ play late in the season in recent years has fans preparing themselves.

“Looking at our history, people will say, ‘Well see, I told you,’ ” Gonzalez said. “But we’re a good football team, there’s no doubt about it. We’re going to play better because we have to.”

The Falcons opened the game like a team already guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. Carolina opened by scoring on every possession in the first half, taking a 16-0 lead. The Panthers had 15 first downs to Atlanta’s two.

Several Falcons had trouble pinpointing a reason.

But quarterback Matt Ryan pointed to Atlanta’s abysmal third-down conversion rate. Atlanta went 0-for-3 in the first half and 2-for-8 in the game.

“We talked about coming out and trying to start fast, and we didn’t do that,” Ryan said. “We had some opportunities to convert on some third downs early in the game and we didn’t do a good job of that and therefore their offense did a great job of staying on the field and having a couple of long drives to start.”

Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy gave the Falcons plenty of bulletin-board material earlier in the week, proclaiming the Panthers were a better team than the division-rival Falcons.

“They were giving us locker room trash talk all week,” Gonzalez said. “We knew they were going to come out here and play hard. It’s kind of their playoffs.

“I’ve been in that position before where you’re just like. ‘OK we’re just going to go out there and spoil everybody’s experience.’ And they did.”

Still, the Falcons were a failed 2-point conversion from a manageable eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter.

“They were better than us today, that’s for sure,” Ryan said, responding to a question about Hardy’s comments. “They came out and they played better than us. We’re in a position in our season where we’ve got everything right in front of us and we need to get back to work and worry about that.”

What’s in front of the Falcons is a sure playoff berth, and potentially home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. But three games against playoff-contending teams remain before the postseason, where the Falcons have lost their opening game four of the past five years.

“That’s something (coach Mike Smith) always talks about,” center Todd McClure said. “You want to play your best football in December. Nobody remembers how you played September and October, it’s how you play in December and January that people remember.

“That’s something we’re focusing on.”

Jones: 704-358-5223; Twitter: @jjones9

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