CHARLOTTE, NC — Steady rain fueled by Tropical Storm Nicole created messy conditions for Thursday night’s matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers secured a 25-15 victory, 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 has been, the split has been nearly as bad and winnable for a team that is 3-7 after Thursday night’s win over the Falcons. Carolina is only a game and a half behind first place Tampa Bay (4-5), a team it has already beaten. It’s only one game behind Atlanta (4-6) with a 1-1 record against the Falcons. And consider the Panthers have the best division record (3-1) and their remaining schedule is the 27th toughest in the NFL. New Orleans (3-6) has the seventh toughest and the Bucs 22nd. Again, don’t laugh. In 2014, a 3-8-1 Carolina team won its final four to win the South and then a playoff game.
Promising trend: The Panthers rushed for 169 yards for the third time in five games since trading star running back Christian McCaffrey after a Week 6 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. They entered Thursday with an average of 135.7 yards, 11th best in the NFL, since Week 7. That number increases after the team rushed for 232 yards against Atlanta, and D’Onta Foreman is a big raison. He played three games with at least 118 yards rushing, including 130 against the Falcons. If Carolina can keep running the ball and playing good defense, at least they have a chance to be in games.
QB Breakdown: PJ Walker wasn’t spectacular, but he didn’t need to be on a night when the running game was in high gear. But has he played well enough to keep the starting job next week against the Baltimore Ravens? He didn’t see tight end Stephen Sullivan wide open in the first quarter and was lucky he didn’t intercept his attempted pass to DJ Moore in the end zone. He took a bad sack in the first half that put Carolina out of range. He seemed hesitant to run, which the Panthers want him to do more of. Sam Darnold is imminent, a quarterback the Panthers might be inclined to give another shot.
Bold prediction for next week: The Panthers start Darnold, activated from injured reserve earlier this week, against the Ravens and make Walker the replacement. At worst, Darnold is the replacement and Baker Mayfield is either inactive or released. The team really wants to take 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 might consider a veteran to help mentor the team’s selected quarterback 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 night. In prime time for the first time this season, nothing worked. Not close.
The attack was ineffective. The defense was porous. Special teams included kicker Younghoe Koo who missed two extra runs for the first time in his career. And while the Falcons’ loss to the Panthers didn’t look like a blowout on the scoreboard, the Falcons very rarely seemed to have a chance in the game.
In a contest that once again could have given them the top spot in the division and brought them down to .500, Atlanta will instead bemoan another missed opportunity to try and climb into first place in a mediocre division.
While that doesn’t put the Falcons off the hook due to divisional inefficiency, it does throw Atlanta back into the heart of the mess that is the NFC South. So. Ugly.
Disturbing trend: The poor Marcus Mariota-Kyle Pitts connection continued on Thursday. Mariota joined Pitts on the second game of the game. Then he couldn’t find his tight end until the end of the fourth quarter. Mariota and Pitts entered the game connecting on 51% of their passes — the worst of any quarterback combination with at least 20 attempts — and Thursday didn’t improve things one bit after just two catches for 28 yards on eight targets.
The biggest hole in the game plan: After facing the Panthers less than two weeks ago, when Foreman rushed for three touchdowns, Atlanta must have known Carolina would be running the ball. And it didn’t matter. The Panthers ran for 232 yards on Thursday, completely mowing down the Atlanta defense. The Falcons even got through linebackers in the first half with Rashaan Evans, Mykal Walker and Troy Andersen — and it didn’t matter.
QB Breakdown: Rather broken down. It was the worst Mariota had seen all season, although the stats weren’t as bad as other games. While his stat line of 19 of 30, 186 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception (two more were given up) is below average for him, his game was much worse. His through passes were off target (a constant problem), and for one of the first times in 2022 his decision making looked similarly poor. He wasn’t helped by several low kicks from center Drew Dalman and shaky offensive line play, but it was a pretty lackluster performance for Mariota.
Silver Lining: Cool moment for KhaDarel Hodge. In his fifth NFL season and 65th NFL game, Hodge scored his first receiving touchdown. He played on four teams and on Catch No. 41 he got his first score.
Next game: versus. Bears (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)