CHARLOTTE, NC — A steady rain sparked by Tropical Storm Nicole made for some messy conditions in Thursday night’s tilt between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers won 25-15, 11 days after the Falcons beat the Panthers in a wild 37-34 overtime game in Atlanta.
Don’t laugh, but the Carolina Panthers remain relevant in the NFC South. As bad as it was, the division was almost as bad and winnable for a team that is 3-7 after Thursday night’s win over the Falcons. Carolina is just a game and a half behind first-place Tampa Bay (4-5), a team it has already beaten. They are just one game behind Atlanta (4-6) with a 1-1 record against the Falcons. And consider, the Panthers have the best record in the division (3-1) and their remaining schedule is the 27th toughest in the NFL. New Orleans’ schedule is the seventh toughest and the Bucs’ is the 22nd. Again don’t laugh. In 2014, a 3-8-1 Carolina team swept the Final Four to win the South and then a playoff game.
Promising trend: The Panthers topped 169 yards rushing for the third time in five games since trading star running back Christian McCaffrey in a Week 6 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. They entered Thursday averaging 135.7 yards, 11th best in the NFL, since Week 7. That number is up after the team rushed for 232 yards against Atlanta, and D’Onta Foreman is a big reason. He had three games with at least 118 yards rushing, with 130 coming against the Falcons. If Carolina can continue to run the ball and play good defense, they have a chance to at least be in the games.
QB Analysis: PJ Walker wasn’t spectacular, but he didn’t need to be on a night when the running game was in high gear. But did he play well enough to keep the starting job next week against the Baltimore Ravens? He didn’t see Stephen Sullivan get wide open in the first quarter and was lucky his pass attempt to DJ Moore wasn’t intercepted in the end zone. He got a bad sack in the first half that took Carolina out of field goal range. He looked hesitant to run, something the Panthers want him to do more of. Transparent is Sam Darnold, a Panthers quarterback he might be willing to give another chance.
Bold prediction for next week: The Panthers are starting Darnold, activated off injured reserve earlier this week, against the Ravens and making Walker the backup. At worst, Darnold is the backup and Baker Mayfield is either inactive or released. The team is eager to get a look at Darnold, who was 4-7 as a starter last season. It will happen at some point, whether it’s next week or soon after. He’s a player the team could look to as a veteran to help guide whichever quarterback the team selects in the 2023 draft.
Next game: at Ravens (1:00 p.m. ET, Sunday)
That’s the best way to describe the Falcons on Thursday afternoon. In prime time for the first time this season, nothing worked. NOT close.
The offense was ineffective. The defense was porous. The special teams included kicker Younghoe Koo who missed two extra points for the first time in his career. And while the Falcons’ loss to the Panthers doesn’t look like a blowout on the scoreboard, the Falcons very rarely looked like they had a chance in the game.
In a contest that could have once again given them first place in the division and put them back at .500, Atlanta will mourn another missed opportunity to try to get to first place in a bad division.
While that doesn’t put the Falcons out of anything due to the ineffectiveness of the division, it does send Atlanta back into the mess that is the NFC South. So. Ugly.
Problematic trend: The poor Marcus Mariota-Kyle Pitts connection continued Thursday. Mariota connected with Pitts on the second play of the game. Then, he couldn’t find his tight end again until late in the fourth quarter. Mariota and Pitts entered the game connecting on 51 percent of their passes — the worst of any quarterback-tight end combination with at least 20 attempts — and Thursday didn’t improve things at all after just two catches for 28 yards on eight carries targets.
The biggest hole in the game plan: After playing the Panthers less than two weeks ago, when Foreman rushed for three touchdowns, Atlanta had to know Carolina would run the ball. And that didn’t matter. The Panthers rushed for 232 yards Thursday, completely ripping through Atlanta’s defense. The Falcons even outplayed linebackers in the first half with Rashaan Evans, Mykal Walker and Troy Andersen — and it didn’t matter.
QB Analysis: More like damaged. This was Mariota’s worst performance all season, even if the stats aren’t as bad as some other games. While his 19-of-30, 186-yard, 2-touchdown, 1-interception stats (two others were dropped) are below average for him, his play has been much worse. His deep passes weren’t accurate (a constant issue) and for one of the first times in 2022, his decision-making looked just as bad. It wasn’t helped by a lot of low snaps by center Drew Dalman and a shaky offensive line, but it was a very poor performance for Mariota.
Silver lining: Cool moment for KhaDarel Hodge. In his fifth NFL season and 65th NFL game, Hodge scored his first touchdown. He played in four teams and at number 41 of his career he got his first score.
Next game: vs. Bears (1:00 p.m. ET, Sunday)