The Atlanta Falcons lost eight of their last 11 games this season. Put another way, they won three games after Week 5. One win came by three points against 3-13 Tennessee. One win came by six points against 5-11 Jacksonville. And one win, somehow, came against 15-1 Carolina.
If not for that win, the Panthers would be going for an unbeaten 19-0 season. Even crazier, Atlanta’s win came just two weeks after losing to Carolina 38-0.
What the heck happened in that first meeting?
“Well, we got behind early,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show. “That’s been them all year. We were down 21-0 before we had had two possessions. It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, how do we chip away at this thing?’ And then they kept going. So that one is one of this games that unfortunately happens throughout your career. Sometimes a game gets away from you and they got on us good.”
The Panthers forced four turnovers, led 28-0 at halftime and won with ease.
Then the unthinkable happened.
“Two weeks later,” Ryan said, “we go out and beat them.”
Indeed, Atlanta took a 14-10 lead in the third quarter, led 17-13 in the fourth quarter and hung on for a 20-13 win.
How does that happen just two weeks after losing by 38?
“The difference is a few will things here and there,” Ryan said. “We had a drive in the second game – our first series of the game – and we went three-and-out, but there was a penalty on the third down so we got an automatic first down. We went 12 plays after that and had a 15-play drive for a touchdown to start the game. I think the game changes on that one penalty. Had we gone three-and-out and they go back down and score again, who knows? Maybe (we get down big again).”
Ryan, the only quarterback to engineer a win over the Panthers this season, was asked what Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos have to do to win this Sunday in Super Bowl 50.
“Well No. 1, you have to stay balanced on offense,” Ryan said. “Your defense has to keep you in the game because their offense is explosive, but you have to stay balanced. You continue to run the ball because their front four is such a great pass rush that if you just continue to drop back, you’re going to get hit all day. No. 2 is your play-action game has to marry to what you’re doing running the ball because their linebackers are so good at stopping the run. If you can match your play-action up to your run game and hit some of the play-pass stuff behind it, I think there’s an area you can exploit some of what they do. The last thing is, you’ve got to be great on third down. You’ve got to find a way to convert.”
The Falcons went 4-of-14 (28.6 percent) on third down in the first meeting. They went 9-of-15 (60.0 percent) on third down in the second.