The Carolina Panthers looked like they wanted to receive visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Future on Saturday – it was the Christmas Present that they weren’t ready for at all.
Atlanta bludgeoned the Panthers 33-16 on Christmas Eve Saturday, ending once and for all Carolina’s playoff hopes and its chance at avoiding a losing record.
Carolina (6-9) was trailing 13-0 by the time the first quarter ended. That left a stadium that started out about three-quarters full of fans to wonder what else they needed to be doing on the day before Christmas. By the fourth quarter, most of those fans had figured it out and had left the game in search of more festive destinations.
The Panthers should be better next year. They certainly were better last year.
But 2016 has mostly been one disappointment after another, and that point was hammered home again Saturday. Carolina just isn’t very good, and the Panthers won’t make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons because of that simple truth.
Atlanta (10-5) is clearly the class of the NFC South this season, with an offense plenty good enough to push the Falcons into the Super Bowl if a questionable defense can hold up. That Falcons defense was exemplary in this one, intercepting Cam Newton twice and only allowing the Panthers into the end zone once.
Meanwhile, quarterback Matt Ryan sliced the Panthers apart, spreading the ball around much more this time than he did in October when Julio Jones bowled a perfect 300-yard game against Carolina in a 48-33 Atlanta victory. This time the damage was done by 10 receivers, all of whom were beneficiaries of Ryan strikes.
There were a couple of nice moments for Carolina. Tight end Greg Olsen became the first at his position in NFL history to catch 1,000 yards worth of passes for three consecutive seasons, a testament to his consistency and durability. He got a nice ovation and a full bear hug from Newton after doing so.
Later, Kelvin Benjamin would make a sweet catch of a 26-yard TD pass at the end of the third quarter on one play, and stiff-arm a Falcons defender into the ground on another, looking briefly like the dominant receiver the Panthers have always envisioned him being.
A horrid start
There were so many other near-misses for the Panthers, though. Five days after throwing for 300 yards, Newton regressed into one of the ugliest games of his career (18 for 43 for 198 yards, with two interceptions and one touchdown). He was not helped a bit by receivers who rarely achieved any separation.
Newton started the game 1-for-7 for 11 yards and an interception. On a day when Carolina had to score early to have any chance, the quarterback had a 0.0 passer rating over Carolina’s first three drives.
“We didn’t start fast as an offense,” Newton said. “Just all in all, we couldn’t get in a rhythm, and that can’t happen.”
Atlanta scored on its first three drives, so this game was never within one score in the final 51 minutes.
‘I should have made the tackle’
Even when the Panthers defense could slow Ryan temporarily – the Panthers did have four sacks – it didn’t work out for long.
Carolina’s last, best chance came when the team was down 23-13 but had Atlanta facing a third-and-21 at its 14 early in the fourth quarter.
Ryan threw the ball to running back Tevin Coleman, who was being covered by absolutely no one, for 31 yards. On the very next play, Coleman blasted through a hole, survived one of the worst tackling attempts you will ever see by Panthers safety Tre Boston and sped 55 yards for a touchdown as James Bradberry attempted an unsuccessful strip of the ball instead of simply putting him to the ground. That made it 30-13, Atlanta.
“I should have made the tackle,” Boston said. “I thought James was going to make the tackle. I’m a little beat up so I thought I could let it fall right in front of me. It didn’t happen like that.”
No, it didn’t, and that play was a microcosm of a season in which little has happened the way the Panthers intended it to. Carolina’s season finale – Jan. 1 at Tampa Bay – will be essentially meaningless for the first time since 2012. The Panthers Scrooged themselves early this season. They never did recover.