That’s a wrap.
On Christmas Eve in Charlotte, the Atlanta Falcons beat the Carolina Panthers 33-16, officially ending their one-in-a-quarter-million playoff hopes.
The NFC South, which the Panthers had won an unprecedented three straight times, belongs to the Falcons (10-5), who clinched the division with Tampa Bay’s 31-24 loss at New Orleans later Saturday.
Carolina (6-9), a season removed from a Super Bowl appearance, will close the season Jan. 1 with a visit to Tampa Bay.
“We’ve got one to play, and I expect us to play hard,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “That’s what I told the guys in the locker room. We’re going to play to win.”
The Panthers had given up historic numbers to Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones in the first meeting this season. And while there wasn’t exactly a replay in the rematch, the Falcons did pick up where they left off in Atlanta.
On their opening drive, Atlanta went 75 yards on eight plays for a touchdown, with Ryan passing 26 yards to tight end Joshua Perkins for the touchdown.
After Cam Newton was intercepted by Brian Poole, the Falcons got a 51-yard field goal from Matt Bryant for a 10-0 lead with 6 minutes, 9 seconds to play in the first quarter.
On Carolina’s next possession, Newton came up a yard short on a third-down scramble, forcing the Panthers to punt. The Falcons drove for another Bryant field goal, this time from 48 yards, and led 13-0 after the first quarter.
After a Graham Gano field goal, Ryan found D.J. Tialavea for a 1-yard touchdown pass and a 20-3 lead with 5:34 to play in the second quarter.
It was almost worse before halftime.
Newton was intercepted a second time, this time by Jalen Collins, and his 37-yard return gave Atlanta the ball at the Panthers’ 21 with 1:31 to play. But Bryant’s field goal attempt was blocked by Vernon Butler.
Gano’s 40-yard field goal with 9:23 to play in the third quarter cut Atlanta’s lead to 20-6, but another Bryant field goal, of 29 yards, made it 23-6.
The Panthers tried to show some fight late. Newton, who struggled much of the day, found Kelvin Benjamin for a 26-yard touchdown on the final play of the third quarter, cutting Atlanta’s lead to 23-13.
But after the Falcons converted a third-and-21 with a 31-yard pass reception, running back Tevin Coleman finished the deal with a 55-yard touchdown run down the right sideline, making it 30-13.
Gano and Bryant traded field goals for the final margin.
Three who mattered
Newton: He mattered, but not in a good way. After breaking a streak of four consecutive games completing less than 50 percent of his passes a week ago, Newton was 18 of 43 – 41.8 percent – for 198 yards and two interceptions. He did have the 26-yard touchdown pass to Benjamin. Newton was sacked three times.
Ryan: A perfect 10-for-10 in the first quarter, he didn’t fall off much the rest of the way, finishing 27 for 33 for 277 yards and two touchdowns.
James Bradberry: After he left the game in Atlanta with a turf toe injury, leading to Jones’ 300-yard day that was the sixth-best in NFL history, Bradberry acquitted himself admirably Saturday. Jones finished with four catches for 60 yards.
▪ Benjamin made a 12-yard catch on third-and-13 on the Panthers’ opening drive, then spun the ball. The Panthers made a first down on fourth-and 1, but Newton was intercepted on the next play by Falcons cornerback Brian Poole.
▪ Panthers defensive end Mario Addison recorded two tackles for loss in the first quarter, both on Devonta Freeman, and a sack in the third that gave him 8.5 on the season. He also got a personal foul for taking a swing at a Falcons player, which could have gotten him ejected.
▪ Ted Ginn Jr. wore red and green Christmas cleats. That’s a No Fun League no-no.
▪ The Panthers had two receivers – Philly Brown and Devin Funchess – open behind the defense on a play late in the second quarter, but a scrambling Newton barely overthrew Funchess.
▪ Tre Boston’s tackling on Coleman’s 55-yard touchdown run was not ideal, but Rivera said Boston was trying to play through an injured knee. Boston had been announced as questionable to return with a knee injury during the first half.
▪ After Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short’s sack of Ryan and a 30-yard punt, Carolina drove to the red zone but had to settle for a 31-yard Gano field goal that cut Atlanta’s lead to 13-3.
▪ Greg Olsen’s 17-yard catch in the third quarter made him the first tight end in NFL history to have three consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Olsen finished with six catches for 59 yards and has 1,051 on the season.
▪ Kony Ealy had a strip sack in the third quarter that forced Atlanta to settle for a field goal.
▪ Funchess left with a knee injury in the third quarter.
▪ Gano, playing with a broken bone in his plant foot, had field goals of 31, 40 and 31 yards.
▪ Shaq Thompson also played with energy, finishing with 11 tackles, second only to Thomas Davis’ 12 for Carolina.
▪ On fourth and 3, trailing by two touchdowns with 3:40 to play, Newton was sacked for a loss of 7.
They said it
“We just missed plays. I thought we had a good week. I thought our preparation was good. We just didn’t get it done.” – Rivera.
“You score 16 points it means you kicked three field goals. You’re not going to beat good teams kicking field goals.” – Rivera.
“All in all we just can’t get into a rhythm, and that can’t happen.” – Newton.