As the clock struck 00:00 the Atlanta Falcons became the one exception from the prior season. Defeating the Carolina Panthers in the season finale 22-10 the Atlanta Falcons punched their ticket to the playoffs and became the only NFC team from last season to make it back into the playoffs.
With a 10-6 record that had many including myself at times because the offense that could not be stopped last season was not executing this season, they go on to live another day unlike the Seahawks, Packers, Giants, Cowboys or Lions.
What Atlanta has going into the playoffs they didn’t have during last season’s historic run is a defense that is starting to strike fear into opponents. Last season and for many seasons actually Atlanta’s outcome depended on the Falcons outscoring their opponents often in shootouts. Not this season. While the offense was unable to keep up last season’s pace the defense has stepped up its game and is now a top five unit. They are allowing less than 20 points a game, almost an entire touchdown a game compared to last season.
And defense along with Matt Bryant is how the Falcons defeated the Panthers to make the playoffs. The Falcons’ offense did just enough to win as defense and special teams put their foot down emphatically at the Benz.
The Atlanta at times shows signs of having its act together as in the first series of the game as they moved downfield with ease scoring on a 19 yard pass from Matt Ryan to Devonta Freeman over the middle who broke a few tackles before tumbling into the end zone. The rest of the game was frustrating for the offense as they did just enough to secure the win. It was the defense this day and this year to be honest that won this game and the rest this season compared to last season when they were a liability.
Matt Bryant was the offensive MVP as the 42-year-old place kicker was a perfect five-of- five including two from over 50 yards as the Atlanta offense was able to move to ball but unable to reach the end zone as they made it into the red zone only two more times.
The Falcon defense shut down Cam Newton who completed only 41.2 percent of his passes throwing three interceptions. The Carolina QB had more success running the ball as he led all rushers with 59 yards on 11 carries. His 59 yards was also what the entire Falcons team gained on the ground
Leading 7-0 late in the half the Panthers got on the board with under a minute to go in the half on a Newton four-yard pass to Devin Funchess. It looked like momentum has swung their way as they were receiving the kickoff to open the second half. But it wasn’t to be so as the Falcons defense held them to a three and out – and kept them off the board until 10:34 was left in the game on a 42-yard Graham Gano field goal.
The Falcons defense kept Newton bottled up as he was constantly on the run, inaccurate throwing the ball as the secondary bottled up receivers and making interceptions at key moments including Robert Alford’s interception at the goal line with under a minute to play.
It was a perfect storm for Atlanta. It was a win and you’re in situation. They won and didn’t back into the playoffs. Not only did the Panthers lose, but the Saints who still won the division and the Seahawks lost as well making them the only NFC to repeat in the playoffs from last year.
The Falcons are locked into the sixth seed, as they will travel to the West Coast on Saturday to face the NFC champs LA Rams. Kick off is scheduled for 8:15pm and will be aired on NBC. A win there and its off to Philly.
– Dave Weinthal
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