From the start of their 2012 campaign, it seemed as if the Atlanta Falcons had found the missing links that would lead them past the playoff disappointments of the past two seasons. Gone, it seemed, was the lethargic, businesslike approach that had defined this team in recent years. In its place was a team filled with energy, swagger and passion. A team that had the talent to go far in the playoffs had finally found the mentality to go beyond. Or so we thought?
On a day the Falcons could have solidified their chase for home-field advantage and gained important momentum heading into the last three weeks of the season, they came out and laid an egg. The final score, 30-20 Carolina. Though it wasn't a shutout, it sure felt like one. Though it seemed close at the end, it never really was. From the pregame coin toss to the final whistle, it was all Carolina, and Atlanta knew it. It was the Panthers, not the Falcons, who won the coin toss. Their first time this year. It was Cam Newton, not Matt Ryan, in the victory formation at the end of the game. On Sunday, Carolina was the team filled with the energy, swagger and passion. Not Atlanta.
The Panthers took the Falcons' keys to the game, made copies and drove off in their Bentley. Here's a look back at Atlanta's keys to the game and how Carolina countered.
Protect the Pocket
The last time these two teams met in Week 4, the Falcons gave up seven sacks to the Panthers. This time around, Matt Ryan was only sacked twice, but the Panthers were able to alter passing lanes and force quick throws.
Keep Cam in the Pocket
Cam Newton had 118 yards rushing, with 72 yards on a touchdown run assisted by Falcons defenders in downfield pass coverage with heads turned away from the shifty quarterback. Give Newton credit, he takes what the defense gives him, and Atlanta gave him many run/pass options on the day. All totaled, Newton accounted for 405 yards, 287 in the air to go along with 118 on the ground.
Pound the Rock
I'm sure offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has a well-justified reason for not putting the ball in the hands of Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers more than 11 times combined. I'm not one to Monday-morning quarterback, but I do wonder what might have been had Koetter been patient with the run game. He was wearing down a defensive front rushing upfield, with ears pinned back, too anxious to get pressure on the quarterback. In Week 4, Turner racked up 102 yards rushing against the Panthers. Last week, the Panthers gave up 127 yards on the ground to the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles.
Move the Chains
Atlanta entered the game second in the NFL converting third downs. Until three games ago, sustaining drives came as natural as a U-turn on Peachtree Street. In the past two weeks, they have only managed to convert three of 19 opportunities. Failure to sustain drives in the first half on Sunday resulted in only 13 offensive snaps. On the day, they converted only two of eight third-down conversions.
Defend the Hash
For a quarter, it looked like the Falcons had finally figured out how to defend the crease in the middle of the Tampa 2 Defense, a crease that seems wider on third downs. However, midway through the second quarter, Steve Smith exposed them with a 20-yard reception, and the Falcons never recovered. Later, in the fourth quarter, Newton found tight end Greg Olsen for an 18-yard pass for one of the Panthers' nine third-down conversions on the day.
Put These Cats Away Early
From the pregame coin toss, Atlanta played from behind and never found the momentum to recover. Carolina jumped out to an early 7-0 first quarter lead and extended it to 16-0 at the break. With only 35 yards in the first half, Atlanta couldn't keep up with these cats, much less put them away.
No third-down letdowns
Like last week against the Saints, the Falcons again allowed an opponent to convert four third-down conversions of six or more yards. On the day, the Panthers extended drives nine times by converting third downs. And if that wasn't enough, with under five minutes to go in the game, the Atlanta defense kept a Carolina drive going with a holding penalty on third down. Two plays later, the Panthers sealed the win with a 53-yard strike from Newton to running back DeAngelo Williams.
With an 11-2 record and NFC South title in its nest, it would be premature for Atlanta to hit the panic button. But failure over the next two weeks to heed the warnings signaled by a letdown in Charlotte will be too late.