Carolina’s 31-24 loss to Atlanta on Sunday afternoon was entertaining if you had no stake in the outcome. It had all sorts of drama: Cheap shots and ejections. Touchdowns and deflections.
But it ended up the way most road trips to Atlanta have ended for the Panthers, with the Falcons celebrating on one side and the Panthers players trudging off the field on the other.
The game also took much of what we thought we knew about the Panthers and turned it upside down. Their wing-and-a-prayer offensive line protected quarterback Cam Newton beautifully. But their high-priced defensive line couldn’t do a thing against Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan or the Falcons running backs.
I asked Panthers coach Ron Rivera after the game to assess his run defense and he started with one word: “Terrible.”
Yet the Panthers fought. Give them that.
They were down 31-17 with five minutes left and Atlanta also had the ball. And yet somehow Cam Newton was throwing the ball into the end zone for the potential game-tying touchdown from the Atlanta 31 on the final play of the game.
The play didn’t work, with rookie DJ Moore briefly getting his hands on a deflected ball that dropped to the turf. The Panthers’ record dropped along with that ball, falling to 1-1 in a topsy-turvy NFC South that is somehow led by Tampa Bay (2-0). The three playoff teams from last season (Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans) are all 1-1.
100-yard streak ends
With friends and family at home in Charlotte dealing with the remnants of Hurricane Florence and all the difficulty that entails, the Panthers tried to make the trip as normal as possible. The only problem with that idea is that normality for the Panthers in Atlanta equals a loss most of the time — Carolina has now lost 18 games to the Falcons in 24 regular-season trips.
Newton and Ryan were both great in different ways — and, in this upside-down game, not in the ways you would expect. It was Ryan who ran for two touchdowns. It was Newton — the all-time NFL leader in quarterback rushing TDs — didn’t run for any. And it was Newton who threw for 300-plus yards, not Ryan.
“Listen, I’m not going to out-Cam Cam,” Ryan said later. “He can run. I mean, he can legitimately run. Mine was just the opportunity presented itself.”
It presented itself twice, actually, as Ryan scored twice in the second half from a yard out and on an 8-yard scramble. The Falcons were missing No. 1 running back Devonta Freeman — and yet it seemed they weren’t missing him at all. Carolina allowed an opposing running back to rush for more than 100 yards (Tevin Coleman, 107) for the first time in the past 22 games, snapping their NFL-long streak.
“We’ve got to tackle better,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “I missed some tackles today that I’ve got to make.”
Yes, he did, but other Panthers players didn’t seem to even get in position to make any tackles. The former defensive coordinator was coming out in Rivera after the game, and he was obviously angry about the stop-the-run issues.
“Today we didn’t do the things we needed to do,” Rivera said, “and when you don’t do those things the result is you’re going to have somebody rush for almost 200 yards against you. We can’t do this. We have to go back and we have to correct. ... I won’t stand for that. I won’t have that happen. We will get that corrected.”
‘It looked worse than it was’
And then there was Newton’s slide on fourth-and-4 in the second quarter, when he picked up the first down and then received a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit from Atlanta safety Damontae Kazee. “It looked worse than it was,” Newton said afterward. I’m just lucky nothing pretty much happened. This game isn’t fit for cheap shots like that, but at the end of the day, I can’t blame him. He’s playing as hard as he can. I’m playing as hard as I can.”
A number of Newton’s teammates did blame Kazee, though, who was ejected for the hit. Wide receiver Jarius Wright called it “malicious.” And guard Greg Van Roten said Newton returned to the huddle – he never missed a snap – with a vengeance.
“I mean he always wants to win,” Van Roten said of Newton, “but you could tell that it got personal at that point.”
Van Roten was blocking on an offensive line that picked up veteran left tackle Chris Clark on Wednesday and started him on Sunday. Clark was learning on the fly, so much so that he checked with Van Roten before every play.
“So Cam makes the play call,” Van Roten said, “and then I tell him (Clark) what we’re doing. We get up to the line, I say, ‘I got this guy, you got that guy.’ … We didn’t care about disguising signals or anything like that.”
And yet it often worked, as Newton at least had time to dump the ball to Christian McCaffrey (14 catches, 102 yards) and, toward the end of the game, start finding his wideouts too.
But the Panthers defense never had a sack. And the lack of effectiveness on run defense meant that Ryan’s play-action passes often ended up with receivers running 10 yards free downfield.
And so an upside-down game in Atlanta finally ended up the way they generally do — the Panthers got beaten.