Of course, they did it this time with Cam Newton watching from the sideline. Carolina opted to shut Newton down for the remainder of 2018 following their loss to New Orleans, which eliminated them from playoff contention.
In his place, Taylor Heinecke – an undrafted rookie out of Old Dominion – performed admirably in his first career NFL start. He was forced to throw the ball 53 times and completed 33 of them for 273 yards and a touchdown. However, he did throw three interceptions, and the Panthers as a team turned the ball over four times.
While the Falcons weren’t able to create points off of those turnovers, it still kept Carolina from opening up a lead in the first half. With the key play coming just before the halftime whistle, as Jack Crawford intercepted a tipped pass near the Falcons goal line. That allowed Atlanta to go into the half tied at 10 and come out with a whole different level of focus.
The Falcons received the ball to start the third quarter – and on the very first play from scrimmage – Matt Ryan hit Calvin Ridley for a 75-yard score to take a 17-10 lead. It was one of three touchdowns for Ryan, who went 15/26 for 239 yards without an interception. Although, the real story surrounding the offense is the improved line play.
This is a group that was at the top of Santa’s Naughty List just a few weeks ago. Even with some key injuries, the line was not sniffing their level of potential, resulting in some changes in the form of Ty Sambrailo and Zane Beadles. I don’t think many Falcons fans were thrilled to hear either of their names starting, but you cannot deny the offensive efficiency has risen since the changes were made.
Matt Ryan has remained clean in the pocket. The Panthers only came up with a single sack yesterday and rarely even mustered a pressure on 27 dropbacks. That was the same case two weeks ago against the Arizona Cardinals. This was an offensive line that was as bad as anyone at protecting their quarterback, leading the league in pressures allowed for the majority of the season. Zane Beadles and Ty Sambrailo deserve some credit for relieving that pressure.
The running game has also come to life. After being dormant in nearly every game this season, the Falcons have combined for over 400 yards rushing in the last two games. Last week, it was Tevin Coleman reaching 145 yards on a mere eleven carries. This time, Brian Hill – who was promoted to the backup role in Ito Smith’s absence – led the way with 115 yards on just eight carries.
To put things in perspective, the Falcons only have 1,464 rushing yards in fifteen games this season, and over 400 of them have come in the last two weeks.
- The story of this game had very little to do with the actual outcome. It came on a Carolina kick return by Kenjon Barner and ended with a vicious hit by Atlanta’s Matt Bosher.
THIS MAN HAS A FAMILY, MATT BOSHER. pic.twitter.com/LUE2ny9zJz
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) December 23, 2018
- Deion Jones once again led the Falcons in tackles with 14. If you thought it was going to take some time for him to regain his Pro-Bowl form, you thought wrong. In his four games back, he’s racked up 40 tackles, four passes defended, one sack, one interception, and a touchdown. It will be a pleasure to see him back on the field for a full season in 2019.
- Safety, Sharrod Neasman, put together his best game to date. He’s a jack-of-all-trades type of player that loves to get physical in the box. That’s probably why Dan Quinn appreciates him so much. He’s making the most of his opportunity and receiving an uptick in playing time because of it. Hopefully, his play can carry over into next season.
- With the win, the Falcons move back to 10th in the projected draft order. That pick will be affected a lot by what happens next weekend when Atlanta meets up in Tampa Bay for the season finale.