The Carolina Panthers were on the wrong side of history during their first meeting with the Atlanta Falcons.
With the two teams meeting in a Christmas Eve matinee in Charlotte nearly three months later, the Panthers aren’t motivated by spoiling the Falcons’ playoff chances as much as showing they won’t be embarrassed again.
Quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones put on a two-man, indoor fireworks show in Week 4 as the Falcons hammered Carolina 48-33 at the Georgia Dome.
It was the Panthers’ last game in the Dome, which will be demolished next year before the Falcons move into their new $1.4 billion stadium.
Given the way the Carolina defense played in the Oct. 2 matchup, Panthers linebacker and Georgia native Thomas Davis would be happy to push the button on the Dome implosion.
“That was one of the lowest points of the season for me,” Davis said this week. “I always look forward to playing against the home team, with me being from Georgia. That’s probably the worst performance that we’ve had as a football team against them since I’ve been here.”
We’re excited about another chance. But it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t go out and play well.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, on Saturday’s rematch against the Carolina Panthers
It was one of the Panthers’ worst defensive performances, period.
Ryan (503 yards on 28-of-37 passing) and Jones (12 catches for 300 yards) became the first teammates to post 500-yard passing and 300-yard receiving performances in the same game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Those were the highest single-game passing and receiving totals surrendered in the Panthers’ 22-year history.
The Falcons’ 571 total yards were the second most ever yielded by Carolina, and the 48 points allowed tied for the third-most.
The collapse prompted defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to joke about wanting to jump out of the plane on the flight home to Charlotte.
Davis didn’t go that far. But he pointed out it would be hard for the Panthers (6-8) to be any worse on defense when they host the Falcons (9-5) on Saturday.
“We know that what we watched on film and that team that showed up that day was not an indication of who we are and how we play football,” Davis said. “We’re excited about another chance. But it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t go out and play well.”
A big mismatch
The Panthers’ trip to Atlanta came in the midst of a four-game losing streak in a 1-5 start that doomed any realistic chance Carolina had of making the playoffs and defending their division and conference titles.
McDermott’s starting secondary against the Falcons in Week 4 included one cornerback (Bené Benwikere) no longer in the NFL and a safety (Colin Jones) who has been more of a special teams player throughout his career.
But the biggest blow to the secondary came during the Falcons’ opening possession, when rookie cornerback James Bradberry left with a toe injury after giving up three catches to Jones on the Falcons’ first three plays.
Bradberry returned in the second half before exiting for good. That left Benwikere – who admitted after the game his conditioning was poor after returning from a broken leg last suffered in December 2015 – against Jones in a big mismatch.
According to Pro Football Focus, Benwikere gave up 228 of Jones’ 300 yards, the fourth-highest receiving total of the Super Bowl era. The Panthers waived Benwikere five days after the loss.
The Panthers continued to take their lumps while Bradberry missed three games with the toe injury and fellow rookie corners Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez got their feet wet.
But the secondary has settled down in recent weeks, aided by an improved pass rush (the Panthers and Denver are tied for the league lead with 40 sacks) and the development of the young cornerbacks.
It’s hard to bang the drum too loudly for a team ranked last in the league in pass defense (274.8 yards per game). But count Falcons coach Dan Quinn among those who believe the Panthers’ secondary is in a better place than it was in October.
“That was kind of a fluky game, the first one. Some big plays happened and oftentimes, some stats can look out of whack, crazy,” Quinn said on a conference call this week. “But they totally do (look improved).”
Falcons keep motoring
While the Panthers’ defense has gotten better since October, the Falcons’ second-ranked offense has kept motoring.
Atlanta played its last two games without Jones, who was out with a toe injury, and all the Falcons did was ring up 42 and 41 points in victories over Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Falcons, the league’s top-scoring offense at 33.5 points a game, can clinch the NFC South with a victory Saturday and a loss or tie by Tampa Bay at New Orleans. The Panthers, who won an unprecedented three consecutive South titles from 2013-15, don’t plan to go out meekly.
“These guys you want to beat every year. They’re our rival,” defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “And now we’ve got another chance to come back and redeem ourselves.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera says the key to slowing the Falcons is containing their running attack, which Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly says has been overlooked.
If the backfield tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman has success early, it will make Atlanta’s play-action game more effective. That was the case in Week 4.
After the Panthers pulled within one score in the fourth quarter, the Falcons answered with Jones’ 75-yard touchdown catch. Ryan got Kuechly to bite on a ball fake, leaving the middle of the field open. Jones did the rest, running away from Benwikere and the rest of the defense.
“If we can get them to the point where their running game is just OK, we can eliminate the play-action. If not, that’s what you’ve got to be afraid of because they get vertical very quickly,” Rivera said. “And off the hard play-action, all it takes is one or two false steps by a linebacker or safety and, lo and behold, somebody’s behind you.”
‘They’ve got weapons’
The Panthers again will be missing Kuechly, who is expected to be held out for the second game in a row since clearing the concussion protocol.
Jones returns for Atlanta, which overcame his two-game absence thanks to the play of Taylor Gabriel, who had six catches for 142 yards and two touchdowns in the victories over Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“What they’ve done offensively really speaks for itself,” McDermott said. “They’ve got weapons. One guy goes out and now all of a sudden Gabriel is showing up. We’re going to have our hands full.”
No one’s holiday plate will be fuller than Bradberry’s. The second-round pick from Samford has come back from his toe issue to put together a strong season.
Though he only played 17 snaps at Atlanta, Bradberry said he and the rest of the defensive backfield are fired up for another shot at the Falcons.
“I just know we’ll be going down as the secondary that let Julio and Matt Ryan and their offense do that to us,” Bradberry said. “We want to set the record straight and hopefully come out and have a better game.”
Falcons at Panthers
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Saturday, 1 p.m.