Three weeks ago after a heartbreaking loss to the Detroit Lions in London that saw them lose a 21-0 lead, the Atlanta Falcons were down and being told they were out, that no team had ever started a season 2-6 and gone on to make the playoffs.
But Steven Jackson and the Falcons remained steadfast that they would not give up. They used their bye week to regroup and three weeks later, after consecutive road wins over divisional rivals, Atlanta now sits atop the NFC South.
The Falcons completed their rise up the division on Sunday with a 19-17 victory over the Panthers in Carolina. SJ carried 17 times and ground out 41 yards against a stout Carolina front and also hauled in two passes totaling six yards. Afterward, SJ39 expressed optimism in his team's recovery to put themselves back in control of their own fate.
"We're now back in the driver's seat of our destiny," he said. "That's where we want to be. Ultimately you have to continue to win. You can't look for anybody else to help you out."
Getting the win on Sunday to reach that point was far from easy. Atlanta jumped out to a 16-3 lead midway through the third quarter, but the Panthers rallied back with two fourth quarter touchdowns. The Falcons responded with a drive that got them a field goal with 2:08 left to take the lead and withstood two late field goal attempts from Carolina kicker Graham Gano, one that sailed wide left with 1:22 remaining and one that was blocked as time expired, to hold on for the victory.
"It wasn't pretty at times, but we got some plays made in critical times and as you guys know, winning in the NFL is not easy," Falcons coach Mike Smith told reporters after the game. "We've got a lot of corrections that we've got to make. We made a lot of mistakes in the ball game, but we're going to go home and do that. The goal was very simple this week and that was to leave Carolina 1-0 and we got that accomplished."
Neither team had much success offensively in the first quarter. The first big play of the game came after an Atlanta punt. Three plays into the ensuing Carolina drive, Kemal Ishmael intercepted Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, setting the Falcons offense up at their own 34. SJ39 got the first two carries on the drive that followed and picked up four yards on each rush, but a 3rd-and-2 attempt by quarterback Matt Ryan to find receiver Roddy White for a first down fell incomplete, forcing another Atlanta punt.
Carolina followed that drive with a 17-play, 83-yard march down the field that soaked up nine minutes and put the Panthers in the red zone at the end of the first quarter. But on the last two plays of the frame, with Carolina on the Atlanta five-yard-line, the Falcons defense came up with two crucial stops to force a field goal try. Gano connected from 23 yards out on the first play of the second quarter to give the Panthers a 3-0 lead.
The Falcons offense finally got moving on their next drive. Ryan completed 6-of-8 passes and hit five different receivers, and three different running backs carried the ball over the course of the drive. SJ39 got his lone carry of the trip on 1st-and-10 from the 17 and picked up three yards. Ryan tried to get him the ball again on second down but had to throw it away out of bounds. Then on 3rd-and-7, Ryan was sacked. That forced the Falcons to settle for a field goal and Matt Bryant hit from 34 yards away to tie the score at 3-3.
The teams traded fruitless drives after the game-tying score, but the Falcons got one more chance to get points before halftime as they took possession with 1:35 remaining in the half. They made the most of the opportunity as Ryan engineered a 10-play, 48-yard drive and Bryant's 42 yarder gave them a 6-3 halftime edge.
"We still have a long way to go," receiver Julio Jones said after the game. "We have to continue to keep working, week in and week out, and finding ways to win; that's what championship teams do, find a way to win. It doesn't matter how you do it, if it's ugly or you blow people out, it doesn't matter, find a way to win."
Carolina began the second half with the ball, but their possession did not last long as on the third play of the drive, Newton was intercepted for the second time, and the Falcons took over with great field position at the Panthers 14.
A first down run by No. 39 for four yards got them to the 10 and he picked up two more yards on second down to put them in a third and manageable situation, but a pass attempt from Ryan to Jones fell incomplete and the Falcons had to settle for another Bryant field goal to make it 9-3.
The Atlanta defense continued its stout play on the next Carolina possession, forcing yet another three-and-out, and a poor punt set the Falcons offense up with a drive starting at their own 45. This time the Falcons finally pushed through for the elusive touchdown, thanks to another balanced drive.
After a Ryan pass fell incomplete on the first play of the drive, Atlanta used a little trickery and Devin Hester picked up nine yards into Carolina territory on an end around. Steven then pushed through for four yards and a first down to the Carolina 42.
On the next series, SJ got a screen pass thrown his way on first down and picked up three yards, but was stuffed on a second down run for a loss of one. On third down, Ryan hit Hester for an 18-yard gain to the 22. The very next play was a 20-yard completion from Ryan to tight end Levine Toilolo all the way down to the two-yard-line.
"It was like a wheel route, where we fake the screen to the receiver and try to get one up the sideline," Toilolo said. "Matt (Ryan) threw a great ball; he did a great job of reading the defender, who was tight on my hip, so he threw it back shoulder. I'm just glad I was able to make the play."
Ryan finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown strike to White and the score appeared to put Atlanta firmly in control of the game, ahead 16-3. But they had trouble putting it away as the defense, which had been stout all day in forcing six punts and two turnovers, started to run out of gas in the fourth.
Just a few minutes into the quarter, Newton capped a quick five-play, 71-yard drive with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin and suddenly, despite dominating most of the game, the Atlanta lead was in peril at just 16-10.
It didn't take long for it to vanish altogether. After a fruitless four-play Falcons drive, Newton needed just two plays to put the Panthers in front. The first play of the drive was a 22-yard completion to Jerricho Cotchery and the next play was a 47-yard TD pass to Philly Brown.
"We gave up the big explosive play on our sideline. We just got beaten in a single coverage over there and we didn't execute like we needed to," Smith said afterward. "We've got to get more pressure on the quarterback. We can't let him stand and not get touched or feel the pressure when the ball's going down the field 45 yards."
The extra point that followed put Carolina back in front, 17-16 with 6:20 to play.
But the Falcons bounced right back as Ryan engineered a methodical 12-play, 55-yard drive that included passes to three different receivers and runs by two different backs. It came up short of the touchdown the Falcons were aiming for, but Bryant hit a 44-yard field goal that gave Atlanta the lead back with 2:08 remaining.
"We executed really well," Ryan said of the late scoring drive. "You certainly would love to take a little more time off the clock before that field goal. We could've maybe converted one more third down, but all in all, we made enough plays today at the end of the day to get the job done, and I think everybody feels good about that."
The Panthers made the Falcons sweat in the last two minutes, but ultimately came away with nothing. Their first drive got a kick start from a poor kickoff that allowed Carolina to begin with field position at their own 36. One play later, they were across midfield. But the Atlanta defense stiffened enough to force a 46-yard field goal try that sailed wide left.
With 1:22 left and in need of just one first down to put the game on ice, the Falcons turned to SJ39, and after being stuffed for just two yards on first and second down, he broke out a five-yard carry on third down, but came up just short of the first down marker. Atlanta had to punt, giving the Panthers one more possession at their own 16 with 22 seconds left.
Newton managed to complete three passes against the Falcons prevent defense in the short time, putting the Panthers just across midfield with one-second left. Gano again set up for a potential game-winning field goal from 63 yards out, but the kick was blocked by Rashede Hageman, preserving the win for Atlanta.
"I was able to get through the line and just make a play," Hageman said afterward. "It's just me doing my job; that's what the team expects me to do. At the end of the day, I'm here to do a job and everybody else is doing the same thing."
The victory propelled Atlanta (4-6) to first place in NFC South as a result of their head-to-head tiebreaker with the New Orleans Saints (4-6) whom they beat in Week 1. The Falcons also remained undefeated (4-0) in divisional play, an important mark as they look to finish the season at the top of the South.
But the Falcons know they have a long way to go to finish this season they way they want to. Ryan noted that they won't concede anything based on their sub. 500 record and instead noted that the last several weeks have show that Atlanta is in the process of turning the corner.
"It's been a different year, for sure, but you play to be relevant in November and December, and as quirky as this year has been, we're relevant. And we've got to keep going," he said. "I think we're starting to play better as a football team, even in Detroit over in London, the last three weeks that we've gone out there we've played pretty effective football, and we need to do that. We need to continue to find ways to win, and I think the young team that we have, hopefully it's starting to come together."
The Falcons are back at home in the Georgia Dome for the first time in more than a month on Sunday when they play host to the Cleveland Browns (6-4).
The Browns enter the game coming off a 23-7 loss to the Houston Texans last week in which they allowed Texans rookie running back Alfred Blue, filling in for an injured Arian Foster to rush for 156 yards. Houston ran for 213 yards as a team, which bodes well for Atlanta's rushing attack. Quarterback Matt Ryan believes in the work that group has put in.
"I think across the board our running backs have done a great job," he said. "Steven obviously has kind of carried the load the last two weeks, but Jacquizz (Rodgers) coming in, and Antone (Smith) and Devonta (Freeman), those guys have come in at different times and played really well for us. They've kind of taken a little bit of the load off Steven, which helps. I can't say enough about what our running backs have done all year."
Unfortunately, the Falcons learned early Monday that their four-ma backfield will be a three-man backfield for the rest of the season as Smith was lost to a season ending leg injury.
Atlanta has dealt with injuries all over the roster all season, and had other players step up and fill in admirably. That will need to be the case again with Smith down
"Antone has done some really good things for us, not only on special teams, which he's an ace on our special team unit, but he's also a guy, when he touches the ball he's got the ability to take it the distance," head coach Mike Smith said. "He's created a lot of explosive plays for us, and he'll be someone that we'll miss, but it'll give touches and some other opportunities for other guys to touch the ball."
The chance for the next man to rise up comes on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET inside the Georgia Dome and the game can be seen on CBS.
- Falcons Climb to First Place Despite Losing Record (Associated Press, Nov. 17, 2014)
- Falcons Preserve Late Lead, Top Panthers 19-17 (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 16, 2014)
- What They Said: Falcons at Panthers (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 16, 2014)
- Transcripts: Ryan, Smith Press Conferences (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 16, 2014)
- Falcons quoteboard after win over Panthers (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 16, 2014)
- Falcons hold on for dramatic 19-17 win (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 16, 2014)
- Win over Panthers vaults Falcons into first place (Fox Sports South, Nov. 16, 2014)
- Falcons vs Panthers Recap (The Falcoholic, Nov. 16, 2014)
- Atlanta Sits Atop Division with 19-17 Win (The Falcoholic, Nov. 16, 2014)
- Transcript: Smith Press Conference (AtlantaFalcons.com, Nov. 17, 2014)