Midway through the fourth quarter of the Week 9 matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons, the nearly unthinkable happened.
On fourth-and-7, a wide-open Julio Jones, owner and operator of a pair of some of the surest hands in the NFL, dropped a would-be touchdown pass in the end zone.
At the time, Carolina held a 20-10 lead and ultimately staved off a potential Falcons comeback, 20-17.
“I couldn’t believe he was wide open,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. “I looked up and was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I saw him bobbling the ball and was just hoping he would go to the ground and drop it - (and) he did. The football gods were on our side with that one.”
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But now, with the NFC South as competitive as it is — the Panthers have clinched a playoff berth but seeding depends on the Saints, while the Falcons are fighting for a spot — that drop may loom even larger. If Atlanta beats Carolina Sunday, it clinches a playoff berth. But if the Panthers win, the Falcons must depend on Arizona (7-8) to beat Seattle (9-6).
Every moment has counted in this playoff race, especially in the NFC South.
“It’s, believe me, stuff like that is really immeasurable,” said head coach Ron Rivera this week, as his team prepares for a regular-season finale in Atlanta.
“Just because momentum shifts so quickly, and how important it is to play with momentum. We were very fortunate at that point.
“You go back and you look at a lot of things that happened in a lot of games, and whether it’s a drop or a missed tackle or a fumble, something like that, those type of things that can create momentum in tight games, those are important.”
Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said on a conference call this week that he can’t afford to spend much time looking back at the “what-if.”
“(Jones) is a fantastic player. And that game, that play was one that was a bummer, but he makes so many plays,” said Quinn. “We’ve had our chances and our opportunities in other (games) to make that difference. So as a team, when you’re really playing consistent, the margin for victory in this division is really small.”
The Panthers don’t plan to rest any starters despite their clinch and likely won’t even pull players when it’s clear how the New Orleans game plays out. They also will get veteran linebacker Thomas Davis and veteran defensive end Charles Johnson (whom Rivera said Thursday will be activated this week) from respective one- and four-game suspensions. Against an Atlanta team fighting for its postseason life, Sunday’s contest may shape up to be very competitive indeed.
“You’ve got to be on the details and execute when you can,” said Quinn. “We don’t look back and say ‘what-if.’ But it’ll likely come right back down to it again, two tough teams who want to go battle for it.”