CHARLOTTE – Splat!
That was the sound of the NFC South champion Falcons falling flat on their faces against the last-place Carolina Panthers Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers, behind a strong showing from quarterback Cam Newton, defeated the Falcons 30-20 and slowed down Atlanta’s march to claiming the NFC’s top seed.
The Panthers jumped out to a 23-0 early third quarter lead and held on to improve to 4-9, while the Falcons slipped to 11-2.
“They were much better than us today,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “They beat us in all three phases. We couldn’t sustain drives on third down offensively. We couldn’t even come close to getting them off the field on third downs (defensively).”
The Falcons needed a win and bizarre trifecta of other losses to claim the top seed for the playoffs, which comes with a bye and home-field advantage throughout.
The Falcons are still ahead of San Francisco (9-3-1) and Green Bay (8-4, before playing Detroit on Sunday night). They have a 1 ½ lead over the 49ers with three games to play.
The Falcons want to put this stinker of game behind them quickly.
“It better be a bump in the road if we are the team we think we are,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said.
In recent years, the hottest team in December has gone on to enjoy post-season success.
The Falcons have been eliminated in their first game of the playoffs in three of the past four season.
They wanted to start the fourth-quarter of the regular-season by building some momentum into the playoffs.
With the New York Giants up next, they could end up stumbling into the playoffs.
“I can hear them right now,” Gonzalez said. “They are getting off the band wagon. They are jumping off.
“From looking at our history, a lot of people are going to say, ‘see I told you.’ But we are a good football team. There is no doubt about it. We are going to play better. …We are going to be back to playing the way we have been playing.”
Newton, of Fulton County’s Westlake High and Auburn, completed 23 of 35 passes for 287 yards and two touchdowns. He had a passer rating of 110.1. Newton also rushed nine times for 116 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown.
“You’ve got to take your hat off to him,” Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “It was his day.”
There was a lot of talk before the game from the Panthers.
They said they were disrespected by Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who was seen on Fox television cameras telling the Panthers to “get the (bleep) off our field” after the Falcons pulled out a 30-28 win on Sept. 30 at the Georgia Dome.
Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy also said the Panthers were better than the Falcons. The Falcons seemed amused by all of the chatter.
“They’ve been fired up all week,” Gonzalez said. “We heard it all week and they came out and got after us.”
Carolina jumped out to a 16-0 halftime lead.
Here last season, the Falcons were down by 16 at the half, but rallied to win.
Not this time.
Newton broke loose on a read-option run and scampered 72 yards. Graham Gano’s extra point made it 23-0 with 11:01 left in the third quarter.
The Falcons came back with two touchdowns, but after Roddy White’s two-point conversion catch was ruled incomplete, the rally died.
The Panthers answered when DeAngelo Williams scored from 53 yards out on a screen pass to make it 30-13 with 4:11 to play
The Falcons added a 1-yard touchdown run by Michael Turner for the final 30-20 margin.
“I like the way we responded in the second half if you’re looking for the silver lining,” Gonzalez said.
The Falcons had not played since beating New Orleans 23-13 on Nov. 29.
“I’m a little disappointed with the way we came out,” Gonzalez said. “There is no excuse for that.”
Smith felt the team had a good week of practice and made no excuses for them coming out flat against a feisty Carolina squad.
“They played well and we didn’t play up to our standard,” Smith said.
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