Carolina Panthers stay alive in NFC South with win over Atlanta Falcons

CHARLOTTE, NC — Steady rain fueled by Tropical Storm Nicole made for uncomfortable conditions on Thursday night’s tilt between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers cruised to a 25-15 victory, 11 days after the Falcons beat the Panthers in a wild 37-34 overtime game in Atlanta.

Carolina Panthers

Don’t laugh, but the Carolina Panthers remain relevant in the NFC South. As bad as they were, the division was nearly as bad and winnable for a team that is 3-7 after Thursday night’s win over the Falcons. Carolina is just a game and a half behind first-place Tampa Bay (4-5), a team it has already beaten. That’s just a game behind Atlanta (4-6) with a 1-1 record against the Falcons. Consider, the Panthers have the best record in the league (3-1) and their remaining schedule is the 27th toughest in the NFL. New Orleans’ schedule is the seventh toughest, and the Bucs’ is 22nd. Again, don’t laugh. In 2014, a 3-8-1 Carolina team won the final four to win the South and then a playoff game.

Promising trend: The Panthers surpassed 169 yards rushing for the third time in five games from star running back Christian McCaffrey in a Week 6 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. They entered Thursday with a 135.7-yard average, 11th-best in the NFL since Week 7. That number is growing after the team rushed for 232 yards against Atlanta, and D’Onta Foreman is a big reason why. He had three games with at least 118 yards rushing, topping 130 against the Falcons. If Carolina can continue to run the ball and play good defense, they have a chance to at least be in games.

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QB analysis: PJ Walker wasn’t spectacular, but he didn’t need to be on a night when the running game was in full 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 in the first quarter and was lucky his pass attempt to DJ Moore in the end zone wasn’t intercepted. He took a bad snap in the first half that took Carolina out of field goal range. He seemed hesitant to run, something the Panthers want him to do more of. Sam Darnold, the Panthers quarterback, is looming, and could give him another chance.

A bold prediction for next week: The Panthers are starting Darnold, activated from injured reserve earlier this week, against the Ravens and making Walker the backup. At worst, Darnold is the backup and Baker Mayfield is either inactive or released. The team really wants to see Darnold, who went 4-7 as a starter last season. It will happen at some point, either next week or soon after. He’s a player the team could consider a veteran who could help mentor whichever quarterback the team selects in the 2023 draft.

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Next game: at Ravens (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)

Atlanta Falcons

Just horrible.

That’s the best way to describe the Falcons on Thursday night. In prime time, for the first time this season, nothing worked. It’s not close.

The attack was ineffective. The defense was porous. Special teams included kicker Younghoe Koo missing two extra points for the first time in his career. And while the Falcons’ loss to the Panthers doesn’t look like a blip on the scoreboard, the Falcons rarely looked like they had a chance in the game.

In a contest that could have once again given them first place in the division and put them back to .500, Atlanta will instead rue another missed opportunity to try and get first place in a bad division.

While this doesn’t put the Falcons out of the running for divisional inefficiency, it does send Atlanta back into the mess that is the NFC South. So. Ugly.

Worrying trend: The miscommunication between Marcus Mariota and Kyle Pitts continued on Thursday. Mariota connected with Pitts on the second play of the game. Then he couldn’t find his tight end again until late in the fourth quarter. Mariota and Pitts entered the game connecting on 51% of their passes — worst among quarterback combinations with at least 20 attempts — and Thursday didn’t improve things at all with just two catches for 28 yards on eight targets.

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The biggest hole in the game plan: After playing the Panthers less than two weeks ago, when Foreman rushed for three touchdowns, Atlanta had to know Carolina would run the ball. And that didn’t matter. The Panthers ran for 232 yards on Thursday, completely tearing through Atlanta’s defense. The Falcons even went through linebackers with Rashaan Evans, Mykal Walker and Troy Andersen in the first half — and it didn’t matter.

QB analysis: More like broken. This was the worst Mariota has looked all season, even if the stats aren’t as bad as some of the other games. While his stats of 19-of-30, 186 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception (two were dropped) are below average for him, his play has been much worse. His deep passes weren’t on target (a consistent problem), and for one of the first times in 2022, his decision-making appeared to be just as bad. Center Drew Dalman’s multiple low shots and shaky offensive play didn’t help him, but it was a pretty poor performance for Mariota.

Silver lining: Great moment for KhaDarel Hodge. In his fifth NFL season and 65th NFL game, Hodge scored his first touchdown. He played on four teams, and on catch number 41 of his career, he scored his first score.

Next game: vs. Bears (1 p.m. ET, Sunday)


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