Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was the first to stand up and take responsibility for the crushing 30-28 loss Carolina endured in Atlanta on Sunday.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win,” said Rivera in his postgame press conference. “Unfortunately we made some mental mistakes and there were some things we did that take away from a win, and again it falls back on me.”
Safety Haruki Nakamura stood in a far corner of the visiting locker room because he couldn’t get any farther away. Two deep passes—one a 49-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White in the first quarter and a second, a 59-yard pass to White again with less than a minute to go—were completed with Nakamura in coverage.
"I mean I basically cost us the football game," he said as quietly as he could with a mob of reporters around him. "It's hard on me because I'm supposed to come in and be a difference maker. When you cost the team a football game—particularly with how hard we played—man, it's just hard to deal with."
Linebacker Jon Beason tried to take blame for the game as well, counting his missed tackles out loud that led to extended drives and Atlanta scores.
Cam Newton put more of a team twist on the brutal two-point loss. After tight end Greg Olsen said the only reason Carolina was in the game at the end was because of Newton. The second-year quarterback disagreed.
“This is an 11-man game, each and every down; 11 people on offense, defense, and special teams (that) go out there and play, said Newton. “Everybody knows the game does not come down to one play, but one play can open opportunities to win the football game.
“I appreciate what Greg said, but still, I put a lot of pressure on myself to stand up and make plays in any particular situation.”
That one play Newton was speaking of was his fumble late in the fourth quarter on third-and-short. Newton fumbled after getting the first down, and even though Carolina recovered the ball, the ball had squirted back towards the line of scrimmage. The first down was negated and the Panthers had to punt.
That punt with 59 seconds left was executed magnificently. Brad Nortman landed the ball on the 1-yard line making sure the Falcons had to drive the longest distance possible.
It turns out, that’s just what the Falcons did.
Losing the game at the end wasn’t any one players fault, or coach for that matter. But the Panthers do have some glaring weaknesses.
Carolina entered the game ranked 26th in run defense and gave up 121 yards rushing. The mark was an improvement from the 139 yards on average the team had given up to opposing teams, but the Panthers allowed Michael Turner to rush for 103 yards, a mark Turner hadn’t reached this year.
Even with the Carolina pass rush sacking Matt Ryan seven times on Sunday, the Panthers defense gave up 369 yards through the air. Ryan was 25-for-40 and picked apart the Panthers secondary, particularly the side with rookie Josh Norman and Nakamura.
Carolina had this game as close to in the bag as possible. A freak fumble with just over a minute to go forced a punt, giving the Falcons the ball with no timeouts and 59 second to drive.
Two deep passes, with so much air underneath they seemed in slow motion, landed in the hands of White—one for a score and the other bailing Atlanta out of danger on its last drive.
Those plays don’t happen every day. But they happened to the Panthers Sunday, and they erased a momentum-changing win that could have altered the direction of the season for Carolina.
Newton’s correct though. The loss, even though people will point to a fumble or a deep pass or even a punt, was the responsibility of every player and coach in that locker room.
Landing at 1-3 is rough, but Carolina must find a few items to build from. They almost took down one of the best teams in the NFL, and it took some chance circumstances to make that happen. With 12 games left on the docket, there’s plenty of ammunition there to work with.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.