CHARLOTTE – It started with the Carolina Panthers winning the coin flip for the first time this season. It ended with the Falcons being trash-talked off the field by a last-place team. Somewhere in between, we witnessed Atlanta’s worst four quarters of football of the season.
And the Falcons’ deserved it all – the loss, the mocking, the questions about what this means moving forward.
“I can hear everybody right now,” tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “They’re getting off the bandwagon. I can hear them jumping off. Looking at our history, people are going to go, ‘See, I told you.’”
OK. It’s a little premature for I-told-you-sos. The Falcons haven’t lost a playoff game yet. But it has to be concerning when an 11-1 team falls behind 23-0 to a 3-9 team, and at one point finds itself being outgained 356-66. It’s concerning any time a defensive front is so thoroughly shredded the way the Falcons’ front was Sunday, and the offense can’t run the ball (again), and all hopes of opening the regular season’s final month with an impressive win are emphatically squashed.
The Falcons lost 30-20 to Carolina. They managed to make Cam Newton feel like he was back at Auburn again.
If Newton could combine for 403 yards and three touchdowns with his arm and legs in victories every week, media members wouldn’t be hiding behind potted palms and waiting for anonymous quotes that rip him for being petty, immature and ego-maniacal (just paraphrasing the attack pieces).
The fact the Falcons lost a game in itself isn’t devastating. They’re 11-2. They’ve already clinched the NFC South Division and remain in a strong position to clinch home field through the NFC playoffs.
But Gonzalez is correct: This was like feeding steroids to a doubting public.
Next week’s game against the New York Giants will tell us something. The Falcons find themselves having to rebound, physically and emotionally, against the team that drop-kicked them out of the playoffs last year.
“We all knew we were flat,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “It seemed like every time there was a play to be made, we were almost there. You can’t be almost in this league.
“We get a chance to go after some guys who controlled our destiny last year.”
Yes. Best to turn the page as quickly as possible. Embrace the possibility of amnesia.
The Falcons made the Panthers look like a playoff team. Carolina scored on its first five possessions (two touchdowns, three field goals), and only one of those ended in a big play (Newton’s 72-yard touchdown run, finished off with a flip). Mostly, the Panthers punched the Falcons in the mouth.
It figured they would milk this a little, and they did. When the Falcons rallied for a 30-28 win back in September in the Georgia Dome – Matt Bryant’s game-winning field goal coming with five seconds remaining – quarterback Matt Ryan was caught on camera screaming toward Carolina’s bench to, “Get the [bleep] off our field!”
So when this one ended, several Carolina players were overheard trash-talking on the field, led by defensive end Greg Hardy, who witnesses say mimicked Ryan’s comment, “Get the [bleep] off our field.” Bryant’s reported response: “Watch us in January.” Introducing, the trash-talking kicker.
Hardy is the same obscurity who earlier said the Panthers were a “better” team than the Falcons, adding: “I’m trying to mess up their whole playoff experience. I want them to go home sick in the stomach, mad about life, a couple depression issues …” (He didn’t make himself available for the media Sunday.)
Down 23-0, the Falcons showed a pulse. Ryan’s four-yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones closed it to 23-13. But a seemingly successful two-point conversion pass to Roddy White was ruled incomplete (questionably), deflating the comeback. DeAngelo Williams’ touchdown on a 53-yard screen pass slammed the door shut.
When asked if he considered this loss a bump in the road, Gonzalez responded: “It better be, if we’re the team we think we are.”
Instead, they’ve left everybody wondering again.
By Jeff Schultz
The last dozen from the digital juke box