Carolina is heading to New Orleans.
After a bad 22-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday – a day ripe with playoff implications throughout the NFC – the Panthers finished second in the NFC South at 11-5, and could have won the division with a victory since New Orleans Saints also lost Sunday, 31-24 to Tampa Bay.
A victory would have given the Panthers a home game, but now they visit the Saints (11-5), who beat them twice in the regular season, in a Sunday wild-card game.
“Mad, disappointed – take your pick,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of his postgame mood.
That mirrored his locker room, where Panthers linebacker Ben Jacobs was making the rounds asking teammates if they were OK.
“We’re in the playoffs, right?” he asked them. “We’re good, right?”
The Panthers are, but Sunday, it didn’t much feel like it.
Still, Rivera said he’s not concerned about his struggling offense.
“No,” he said. “This was one game.”
The next? Sunday at 4:40 p.m. in New Orleans.
Three who mattered
Mike Adams: The veteran safety was key in stopping star Falcons receiver Julio Jones on two early plays that could have meant trouble for Carolina. Adams’ clean, enormous hit on Jones in the first quarter forced Jones to drop a pass. Late in the quarter, quarterback Matt Ryan went deep to Jones but Adams kept pace with him and tracked the ball well, getting a hand on the would-be touchdown pass to knock it away.
Panthers defense: The Falcons scored on their first drive of the game for an early 7-0 lead, but Carolina’s defense kept the Panthers in the game while its own offense sputtered. Pressure early on Ryan coupled with good coverage from Carolina’s cornerbacks and Adams’ ability to limit the big plays from Jones were key factors.
Matt Bryant: Atlanta’s grizzled 42-year-old kicker kept the Falcons out of reach on Sunday, with five field goals on five attempts and a 56-yard long.
▪ Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn struggled early in coverage, allowing two big third-down catches (one by Jones). The Falcons were able to convert all three of their third-down attempts on their first drive, which ended in a 19-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Devonta Freeman.
▪ Carolina opened the game with a three-and-out. On the Panthers’ next drive, Newton rushed for 17 yards on a zone-read play, reaching 700 rushing yards on the season. Former Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick and Newton are the only NFL quarterbacks with three career 700-yard rushing seasons.
But Newton struggled in the passing game, starting 0-for-5 in the air. Two of his passes were broken up by cornerback Robert Alfred, two were overthrown and one was incomplete on what appeared to be pass interference on a broken-up ball to Devin Funchess that did not get a flag. Newton finished the first quarter 0-for-6.
▪ The 0-for-6 start was the worst passing start of Newton’s career. He was 0-for-8 with 11:55 left in the half, which is the worst passing start in franchise history. But Newton followed up what became an 0-for-9 start with seven consecutive completions, including a touchdown pass to tie up the game with 50 seconds left in the first half.
▪ Part of Newton’s first-half troubles were because of a lack of separation achieved by his receivers. Even as Newton showed his ability to avoid pressure and look downfield, he often had difficulty finding an open target – or even a winnable option.
▪ Carolina was able to tie the game with under a minute to play in the first half thanks in part to a crucial 27-yard catch from Brenton Bersin on third down and 23. Newton then fired a 4-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess, the latter’s first catch of the day. Funchess also had a 44-yard catch – just his second of the day in the fourth quarter – on a well-thrown ball from Newton.
▪ In the third quarter, Ryan saw one-on-one coverage on Mohamed Sanu by Luke Kuechly in the end zone, and fired a pass to the recevier that was originally ruled a touchdown – which Kuechly argued. After review, the touchdown was overturned because the ball hit the ground. On the next play, Munnerlyn had a crucial pass breakup against Justin Hardy to force a field goal.
▪ In the third quarter, Funchess appeared to not run through his route (either that, or Bersin ran the wrong route) and when Newton fired a pass into where the receiver was supposed to be, it was picked off by Ricardo Allen.
But the defense once again kept Carolina competitive, with a huge second-down tackle for loss by cornerback Daryl Worley following the pick, and a batted pass by defensive tackle Kawann Short a play later to hold Atlanta to a field goal (13-7, 3:44 left in the third).
▪ A bad drop from rookie Christian McCaffrey on a perfectly tossed lead ball from Newton stopped a Panthers drive late in the third quarter.
▪ The errors continued in the fourth quarter, when a miscommunication between Newton and tight end Greg Olsen saw a ball sail far wide of Olsen, who didn’t even turn around for it. The third-down play resulted in a 42-yard field goal by Graham Gano (16-10, 10:34 left in the fourth).
▪ Newton also forced a throw to Olsen that was well off with 4:20 left in the game and it was intercepted. Bryant kicked a field goal to seal the game.
▪ Starters Kurt Coleman (foot), Jonathan Stewart (back tightness) and Trai Turner (concussion protocol) were among those inactive for Carolina on Sunday. Colin Jones started in place of Coleman at safety and rotated with Jairus Byrd, while Amini Silatolu started at guard in place of Turner for a third consecutive week.
▪ Although playing in his first game back after serving a four-game suspension, defensive end Charles Johnson hardly saw the field. He was called for a neutral zone infraction with about five minutes left in the third quarter, which was the Panthers’ first penalty of the game.
▪ Rookie defensive tackle Vernon Butler also had to leave the game with a shoulder injury but returned in the second half.
▪ With 6:37 left to play, Carolina had just 181 yards of offense and was 4-of-12 on third down. Only one receiver (Funchess) had made multiple catches, and without Stewart, the rushing game sputtered to just 78 yards.