CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Atlanta Falcons were in playoff form Sunday.
Unfortunately for them, we’re talking about the kind of postseason form they’ve shown throughout Mike Smith’s tenure as coach. The team with the best record in the NFC came out flat and got stomped 30-20 by a Carolina team that hadn’t won much of anything, including a coin toss this season.
The Panthers had lost the coin toss in their first 12 games and once in overtime (against Tampa Bay). But the Falcons couldn’t even get the coin toss right. They called tails, the coin came up heads and the game quickly was over.
Even the Panthers, who’ve found all sorts of ways to squander leads, built up enough of an early cushion that the Falcons weren’t going to bounce back from a horrible start. Atlanta held the ball for only six minutes and 12 seconds, amassed just 35 yards of total offense and was down 16-0 at halftime.
“Ridiculous maybe?" veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said when asked to describe the first half in one word.
I won’t even try to top Gonzalez on that one because he nailed it. Just when I thought the Falcons had turned the corner and become a really good team, they showed they’re not.
They fell to 11-2 and had a five-game winning streak against the Panthers snapped. More important, they showed all sorts of flaws that could come back to haunt them in the postseason.
“It better be a bump in the road, if we’re the team we think we are," Gonzalez said. "I can hear them right now. They’re getting off the bandwagon. I can hear them jumping off. But that’s how it goes. And looking at our history, a lot of people are going to say, 'Well, see, I told you' and whatever."
Yep, you’ll see a lot of “same-old Falcons" talk in the aftermath of this one. In the first half, the Atlanta offense was even more stagnant than it was in last season’s playoff loss against the New York Giants (the same team Atlanta hosts next Sunday). The Falcons ran only 13 offensive plays in the first two quarters.
“We did not play anywhere near our potential, to our standards," Smith said.
No, what the Falcons put on the field early on wasn’t even close to their standards or the standards of any team that hopes to do anything positive in the postseason.
“Other teams are going to look at the tape from today and try to do some of the same things," Atlanta center Todd McClure said.
What they’ll see on film is a team that couldn’t convert on third downs offensively and a defense that couldn’t get the Panthers off the field on third downs. They’ll see a passing offense that couldn’t get started until the second half, a running game that was nonexistent and a defense that gave up 475 yards of total offense.
Even as the offense got going in the second half, the defense still was sputtering. Carolina quarterback Cam Newton scored on a 72-yard run to give the Panthers a 23-0 lead with 11:01 remaining in the third quarter. Matt Ryan followed that with two touchdown passes, enough to make Carolina fans worry about another collapse.
But the doubt went away for good when Newton and DeAngelo Williams hooked up on a 53-yard touchdown pass with 4:11 left in the game to take a 30-13 lead.
“They were much better than us today," Smith said.
That mantra (some variation of “the better team won") seemed to be reiterated by every Atlanta player I listened to in the postgame locker room. At first blush, it sounded like the Falcons were agreeing with the comments made by Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy -- that the Panthers were the better team -- in the days leading into the game.
But I don’t think Smith’s intention in hammering that message home to his players was specifically designed to say the 4-9 Panthers are a better team for anything more than one day. I think Smith’s message was that, if the Falcons play like this in the postseason, they’re going to be in for another huge disappointment.
“If we play like we did in that first half, there’s no way," Gonzalez said. “It’s not going to work out the way we want it to throughout the rest of the season. We’ve got to learn from this game. We’ve got to go out and play Falcon football because we didn’t do that in that first half."
What is Falcon football? Up until Sunday, it was a team playing with enough resilience to overcome just about any obstacle. Up until Sunday, it was a team that usually found a way to win. Even in their other loss (at New Orleans) the Falcons came within a yard of victory.
Against Carolina, they didn’t even come close and this is not the time of year to be regressing.
“Smitty always talks about how you want to play your best football in December," McClure said. “Nobody remembers what you did in September and October. It’s how you play in December and January that people remember."
If the Falcons play like they did against the Panthers in the final three regular-season games and into the postseason, everything that happened in September and October will be forgotten.
“If anything, we’ve got to look at this and say, 'Wake-up call,'" Gonzalez said. “We’ve got to go out and start playing the type of football that we’re capable of playing."