It was the kind of game that a truly good team should find a way to win. The failure of the Falcons to win it, then, makes us wonder whether they are a truly good team, or whether the rest of the league has caught up with the franchise that took the conference by storm in 2008.
Indeed, the Falcons were in position to take a one-point lead with less than seven minutes to play, but kicker Jason Elam missed a 34-yard field goal. After the play, Elam wasn’t happy, and it’s unclear whether the culprit was holder Michael Koenen or snapper Bryan Pittman. (Or, you know, Elam.)
That moment, if the kick had been true, could have been the moment the Falcons clinched a move to 6-3, given that the Panthers’ passing attack still isn’t anything close to what it once was.
But then the Falcons had another shot. After forcing a punt, a solid return from Eric Weems gave Atlanta the ball 51 yards from the end zone with 3:59 to play. After a couple of first downs, the law firm of Elam, Koenen & Pittman would have gotten a shot at redemption, and the Falcons would have still emerged at 6-3.
On the first play, however, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan badly overthrew receiver Michael Jenkins in the middle of the field. Panthers cornerback Richard Marshall made the easy catch, ran the ball out to the exact spot from which the play had begun, and three plays later tailback Jonathan Stewart went 45 yards to ice the win.
Ryan has now thrown ten interceptions in five games, quietly casting doubt on whether he’ll be 50 percent of the next decade’s Manning-Brady debate.
Casting further doubt on the Falcons’ season is the loss of running back Michael Turner to an ankle injury, which reportedly could be serious.
At 5-4, the margin for error in Atlanta is shrinking. Though several winnable games remain (Tampa twice, Buffalo), they need to beat the Giants, Eagles, or Saints in order to have a realistic shot at the postseason.
The Panthers, at 4-5, still have room for optimism. But with a final four games against the Patriots, Vikings, Giants, and Saints, it’s still a steep uphill climb to save John Fox’s job.