The sluggish start, the drop-off in production from the reigning league MVP, an offensive coordinator taking early fire – the Atlanta Falcons’ post-Super Bowl struggles look all too familiar to Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera.
“Well, yeah,” Rivera said Monday. “The hangover.”
The Panthers’ I-85 rivals look like they’re still feeling the effects of the 25-point second-half lead they blew in falling to the Patriots 34-28 in overtime in Super Bowl LI.
That was nearly nine months ago, but the Falcons haven’t looked the same since.
Quarterback Matt Ryan’s interceptions are up and the rest of his passing numbers are down from his MVP season of 2016.
The high-flying offense is scoring nearly two touchdown a game fewer than its league-leading average of a year ago.
And nearing the midway point of the season, Atlanta (4-3) is staring up at a couple of teams in the NFC South standings.
In other words, the Falcons look much like the Panthers did throughout their year-after season of 2016.
“When you come off a season like (2015), it ain’t going to be given to you next season,” Panthers defensive end Mario Addison said. “You’ve got a target on your head. So you’ve really got to start over from scratch and build from the ground up.”
The Falcons come to Charlotte this weekend in better shape than the Panthers were at this point last season. Carolina, which was 15-1 in ’15, started 1-5 en route to a 6-10 finish.
Atlanta moved back above .500 on Sunday with a 25-20 victory over the New York Jets, snapping a three-game losing streak. All the losses came against the AFC East.
The skid included a 23-7 loss at New England in a nationally televised Super Bowl rematch played in the fog in Foxborough. The build-up to the game reminded Rivera of the Panthers’ loss to Denver in Week 1 last year in a rematch of Super Bowl 50.
Rivera said the “constant reminders” of the Super Bowl outcome began to wear on him last season.
“When they were getting ready to play New England, you sit there and you constantly hear it, (commentators) talking about the comeback,” Rivera said Monday. “It’s hard. It’s tough. Unfortunately we went through it and now they’re dealing with it.”
Panthers tight end Ed Dickson has been on the winning (with Baltimore) and losing (Carolina) side of a Super Bowl. He remembers watching the Atlanta-New England game in February thinking – like the rest of the world – the Falcons had the game won after jumping out to a 28-3 lead.
Then Tom Brady did Tom Brady things.
“I thought they were gonna win. But when you’re playing against the GOAT, you’re playing against Brady, you can’t give him no window. He took advantage of it,” Dickson said. “Give the Patriots a lot of credit. Atlanta showed up – the first half at least. But ended up losing the game.”
Greg Olsen, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl tight end, said he didn’t want to draw too many comparisons because every team is different with unique dynamics and challenges. While the Panthers lost two-fifths of their offensive line last season, the Falcons have been relatively healthy.
“I’m sure they’ll be fine. Last year there was a lot of circumstances (with the Panthers). I don’t feel like they’ve been injury-ridden. I still think they have their guys out there,” Olsen said. “It’s just a matter of finding their stride. Hopefully they don’t find their stride for another couple weeks.”
Ryan completed 18 of 29 passes for 254 yards against the Jets, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. But he also had three fumbles, losing two, in the wet conditions in the Meadowlands.
After averaging 33.8 points a game in ’16, the Falcons are scoring 21.9 ppg under first-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian, hired away from Alabama after Kyle Shanahan became San Francisco’s coach.
Critics have questioned whether Sarkisian is effectively using the speedy backfield tandem of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. But Rivera said it looks like Sarkisian is trying to get them the ball.
“It’s tough to be a coordinator in this league because when things go well everybody’s happy. And when things go wrong you’re the first one they blame,” he said. “And right now things aren’t going the way everybody wants them to go.
“But I tell you it’s a good football team and what everybody’s gotta to do is just relax. It’s gonna happen.”
The Panthers don’t want that turnaround to happen this week when Atlanta visits Bank of America Stadium.
The Falcons dashed the Panthers’ dreams of a perfect season in 2015 with a Week 16 victory, then swept Carolina last year to end the Panthers’ three-year run as division champs.
“We took over the South for many years. For Atlanta to beat us two times in one season, it’s unheard of,” Addison said. “But I give it to ‘em, hats off to those guys. They brought it last year and they were hitting on all cylinders.”
That has not been the case this season, at least not yet.
“We know how talented they are and we know what they’re capable of,” Olsen said. “You just never want to be the team that they find it against.”