Rapid Reaction: Falcons 31, Panthers 23

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 31-23 victory against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday:

What it means: The Falcons struggled early, but they did what they had to do. They got the win to move to 8-5 and that keeps their playoff hopes very much alive. This wasn’t particularly pretty, but a win is a win this time of year. But this game also showed that Carolina can play with just about anybody. The Panthers have been doing that all season and this was a chance to take the next step: beat a good team. But the Panthers squandered a big lead and showed there still is a lot of work to be done.

What I liked: Atlanta’s resilience. The Falcons were on the ropes, but they fought back. Quarterback Matt Ryan got another fourth-quarter comeback victory. He also finished with four touchdown passes.

What I didn’t like: Cam Newton's second half. The Carolina rookie quarterback was dynamic in the first half. But it sure looked like he was trying to do too much in the second half. He forced two throws that turned out to be interceptions.

What else I didn’t like: Carolina’s defense. It’s as bad as advertised. The Panthers started off playing pretty well on defense, but it didn’t last. That’s been a constant theme this season. I know the Panthers are without injured linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason and defensive tackle Ron Edwards. Those guys would help a lot, but no one has really stepped forward to replace them.

O-line rebounds: Not sure if the credit goes to some dramatic halftime adjustment in blocking plans or if the Carolina defense simply folded, but Atlanta’s offensive line did a masterful job of protecting Ryan in the second half, after subjecting him to all sorts of pressure in the first half.

Julio’s redemption: Atlanta rookie receiver Julio Jones had been having a rough couple of weeks and Sunday was shaping up to be another one of those days. But Jones caught two second-half touchdown passes, including one that put the Falcons ahead to stay.

What’s next: The Panthers play at Houston next Sunday. The Falcons are home Thursday night against the Jacksonville Jaguars.