Falcons Clinch 6th Seed with 22-10 Win over Panthers

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 1, 2018

Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) works against the Carolina Panthers during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press

The Atlanta Falcons clinched their second straight playoff berth with a 22-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

With the win, the Falcons secure the final wild-card spot in the NFC, which sets them up with a matchup against the NFC West champion Los Angeles Rams in the NFC Wild Card Round.

The Panthers, meanwhile, finish as runners-up to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South and thus will claim the conference's fifth seed. The Saints and Panthers will play for a third time this year. New Orleans won both of the head-to-head meetings in the regular season.

Matt Ryan threw for 317 yards and a touchdown on 28-of-45 passing, while Matt Bryant was responsible for 16 of his team's points after going a perfect 5-of-5 on his field-goal attempts and 1-of-1 on extra points.

Atlanta's defense intercepted three of Cam Newton's passes and held him to 180 yards and a touchdown through the air. His 41.2 percent completion rate was his second-worst of the season as well.

CBS Sports' Barrett Sallee went full conspiracy theorist to explain Newton's dreadful game:

The biggest question from the game is how the Falcons only won by 12 points despite out-gaining the Panthers 371-248. To some extent, the game encapsulated a regular season in which Atlanta has struggled to maximize the offensive talent at its disposal—largely through mental mistakes and odd play-calling.

After scoring on the opening possession of the game, the Falcons punted on their next four drives before they ran out of time while trying to score as the seconds wound down in the second quarter. The Dallas Morning News' Evan Grant criticized what proved to be the final play of the quarter:

There was some controversy to how the half ended.

After a 24-yard reception by Austin Hooper, Ryan tried to rush the offense to the line of scrimmage. It appeared he got the snap off and spiked the ball with a second remaining, courtesy of Sports Illustrated's Jonathan Jones:

Referees were unable to review the play based on a little-known rule, which aggravated NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal:

Had the referees left a second on the clock, the Falcons would've had the ball on the Panthers' 36-yard line—within Bryant's field-goal range or close enough for Ryan to attempt a pass into the end zone.

Instead, the teams entered the locker room with the game tied 7-7.

The Falcons were better in the second half but left a lot of points on the board through their struggles to move the ball once inside Carolina's half of the field.

Atlanta had a 1st-and-10 at the Panthers' 12-yard line with 7:25 left in the third quarter but had to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Bryant after failing to move the ball whatsoever.

Then, a Ricardo Allen interception set Atlanta up at the Carolina 39-yard line. The Falcons got a quick first down before stalling out again. Bryant connected on a 42-yard attempt with 3:44 left in the quarter to put his team ahead 13-7.

Bryant made his third field goal at the 14:11 mark of the fourth quarter as the Falcons once again reached the red zone but failed to find the end zone.

After Graham Gano made it again a one-score game, 16-10, Bryant answered back with his fourth field goal. This one came from 56 yards out, which was a yard short of Bryant's season high. The Falcons' official Twitter account had the perfect reaction to the score:

Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has been a lightning rod for many Falcons fans who want to find a reason for the offense's regression in 2017. In that respect, Sunday's game will provide more ammunition for Sarkisian's critics.

Similarly, the win will do little to calm the fears of those who question whether Atlanta can successfully defend its NFC championship. The Falcons closed out the regular season with defeats to the Saints and Minnesota Vikings and unconvincing victories over the Panthers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The roster is largely the same from a year ago, yet things aren't clicking for the Falcons like they did in 2016. On paper, Atlanta has everything to make another Super Bowl run. However, it's hard to see how the team can solve its biggest issues between now and the postseason.

Likewise, the result will dampen some of the optimism Panthers fans were feeling after the team won seven of its previous eight games.

Carolina now faces a daunting encounter with New Orleans in the playoffs. The Saints won each of the two previous games by double figures and had a 762-567 edge in total yards. New Orleans was clearly the superior team and will have the Panthers coming into Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where the Saints were 7-1 this season.

The Panthers have yet to lose in the NFC Wild Card Round. They're 3-0 in the opening round of the postseason since entering the NFL in 1995. The 2017 season could end in historic fashion for Carolina—just not the kind of history the team will have wanted to make.

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