First-place Falcons marvel at wild OT win against Panthers

ATLANTA -- Rashaan Evans shook his head, almost still in disbelief. In some ways, he still was in disbelief.

The Atlanta Falcons linebacker has been playing football for a long time -- five years in the NFL, four at Alabama and high school before that. What happened Sunday, he never had experienced.

After a topsy-turvy game that saw six scores in the last quarter and then overtime -- not to mention a critical missed extra point and missed field goal -- in an eventual 37-34 Falcons win over the Carolina Panthers, Evans said he was physically and mentally drained. And in first place in the NFC South -- the only team (4-4) in the division to be at .500 or better.

"I'm going to sleep for like three days," Evans said. "For real."

He will sleep happy, though.

The Falcons seemingly had this game won and then lost and then won again. Twice.

In regulation, Atlanta held a six-point lead (34-28) after a Younghoe Koo field goal with 36 seconds left. Carolina quarterback PJ Walker then hit receiver DJ Moore with a 62-yard Hail Mary for a touchdown with 12 seconds left that appeared to give the Panthers the win. The ball traveled 67.6 yards in the air, according to Next Gen Stats, the longest air distance completion since it started tracking air yards in 2016.

Both Evans and safety Dean Marlowe were in coverage on the play. Marlowe told ESPN after the game he was playing the sideline to keep Moore inbounds because Carolina had no timeouts and 23 seconds when the play started. A tackle inbounds would have likely won the game.

Marlowe didn't see Walker scramble and when he saw him out of the box, he didn't think the QB would throw the ball.

"Not a soul in my body thought that he would throw it," Marlowe said.

Marlowe added that he didn't even see the ball in the air. He was defending Moore and then saw the receiver seem to get ready in anticipation. Evans didn't see Moore's touchdown catch until he heard the screams inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He was facing the Panthers' bench and saw them running around in celebration -- the first level of disbelief in a final portion of a game full of them.

Moore had barely beaten both of them -- he had .8 yards of separation when he caught the ball -- sending fans into a combination of shock and hysterics.

"I'm like, 'Did he just f---ing catch this?'" he said. "So I'm feeling in my head, there's no way we just lost this game like that."

Then Moore removed his helmet, triggering an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It was the first such penalty in the last two minutes of a game this season, according to ESPN's Stats & Information research.

"It was a natural reaction," Moore said. "Still, I know that I can't do that."

It forced the Falcons into a decision: Push Carolina kicker Eddy Pineiro back 15 yards on the extra point try or take the yardage on the kickoff. Coach Arthur Smith and special teams coordinator Marquice Williams briefly discussed the two strategies and opted for the former. And it worked.

Pineiro missed the 47-yard extra point wide left, and the game went into OT.

"It was one of those decisions you get paid to make," Smith said.

In overtime, Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota was picked off by CJ Henderson on Atlanta's first possession, and he returned it 54 yards to the Atlanta 26. The Panthers got to the Atlanta 14, and Pineiro came out to attempt a 32-yard field goal. Again, the Falcons thought they were in trouble. Smith called a timeout to try and freeze the kicker.

"It's the only thing you got left in your pocket," Smith said. "You go down with everything you've got. That's the only analogy I can give."

What Smith called "the last available tactic" worked. Pineiro pushed the attempt wide left, giving the Falcons life again.

"I just missed the kick," Pineiro said.

Atlanta then drove down the field, highlighted by a 30-yard run by Mariota, who turned 29 on Sunday, to set up a 41-yard Koo field goal to win the game. Falcons players came streaming onto the field surrounding their kicker, one of the highest-paid in the NFL.

"Honestly, for me, it's sticking to what we do every day," Koo said. "Sticking to the process. We work on it every week. Every day."

It ended a wild, somewhat improbable game in what has been a somewhat improbable season for the Falcons, who are in first place despite not being over-.500 at any point this season. In fact, they haven't been over .500 at all since the end of the 2017 season.

The last time the Falcons were in first place in the division this late in the year was 2016, the last year the team went to the Super Bowl. And it all came from a game so wild hardly any Falcons had experienced anything like it.

"That was crazy," Falcons safety Richie Grant said. "I've never been a part of anything like that. I'm just happy to be on the good side of it."