Down by one point and pinned on their 1-yard line by a 49-yard punt, the Falcons had 59 seconds to drive the field and score either a touchdown or a field goal. It didn’t matter, Atlanta only needed a score to win.
The Panthers were up 28-27 and had dictated the terms of the game through the first 59 minutes.
Cam Newton played admirably for 59 minutes, throwing for two touchdowns and 215 yards on his way to a 119.3 quarterback rating. He added 86 yards yards and another score on the ground and had the Panthers one minute away from evening their record at 2-2.
The defense had played well too. Carolina’s defensive line had blown up the Falcons offensive line and sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan seven times. Atlanta had only allowed Ryan to be sacked four times in their previous three games, combined.
The Falcons couldn’t have asked for a tougher situation to be in with just 59 seconds left to play and staring at their first loss of the season. But they had the ball, and that was a start.
Ryan took the ball and began the drive in phenomenal fashion, letting loose a deep ball fly for Roddy White, who timed the jump perfectly to catch a 59-yard pass between safety Haruki Nakamura and cornerback Josh Norman.
Two incomplete passes and two connections—one each to Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas—later, and the Falcons had a chance to win the game with a 40-yard field goal.
Matt Bryant connected, giving the Falcons a two-point lead and the eventual 30-28 win over the Panthers. But this win was far from pretty.
Call the Falcons successful for opening up running lanes for Michael Turner, who had his first 100-yard rushing game and finished with 103 yards on the ground and 68 yards through the air.
Call Atlanta successful for making it to 4-0, even though it took something close to a miracle to make it happen, and head coach Mike Smith knows how close his team came to being on the losing end of a NFC South game.
“Our goal today was to finish the first quarter of the season at 4-0, and we got that done,” said Smith. “Every time it looked bleak and it didn’t look like we had a chance there in the last five minutes, we were able to overcome and finish it.”
Matters were bleak late in the fourth quarter because the Falcons had trouble in two phases of the game that they had been in total control of during the first three weeks of the season—controlling the oppositions’ pass rush and stopping teams from churning out yardage against their defense.
Ryan, as you know, was sacked seven times—almost twice as many takedowns as he had in three previous games combined.
Atlanta allowed Carolina 404 total yards on Sunday: 199 yards rushing and 205 passing. That total was almost 70 yards more than the Atlanta defense had allowed, on average, during its first three games of the season.
“First off, Cam Newton is a heck of an athlete,” said cornerback Dunta Robinson. “I don’t think we played well as a defense. I think this was a great wake-up call for our entire team.”
Five of Carolina’s 13 drives lasted six plays or longer. Newton is a “heck of an athlete” though, and Atlanta’s new defense under Mike Nolan may face a bump or two in the road.
More devastating to Atlanta’s win—a black eye on a fantastic come-from-behind ordeal—were the seven sacks.
Atlanta spent a good deal of effort in upgrading the offensive line to keep Ryan upright. The Falcons first two draft picks were offensive linemen, and the team brought in a new offensive line coach in Pat Hill.
After three weeks of offensive-line bliss, the Falcons now must answer the question if the first three games were a dream, or if the Carolina Panthers' pass rush was an anomaly Sunday.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson had 3.5 sacks, Frank Alexander had 1.5 and Greg Hardy and Ron Edwards each brought Ryan down once. Prior to Sunday, the Panthers had just six sacks as a team. It’s difficult to imagine Carolina’s pass rush spiking that much without seeing them exploit an area of weakness.
“Obviously,” said Smith, “we have a lot of things as a football team we have to fix.”
That’s an atypical statement, but the right mentality from a 4-0 head coach.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.