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Panthers lose disappointing third straight game to the Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night

 By Zach Goins

October 30, 2020

The Falcons flirted with another signature last-minute meltdown, but the Panthers weren’t able to finish off the two-minute drill as a Teddy Bridgewater pass was intercepted by Atlanta’s Blidi Wreh-Wilson. 

“I don’t think any of us played really well tonight,” head coach Matt Rhule said following the loss. “I can’t say that any of us played well enough on offense to deserve to win a game.”

The loss now puts Carolina’s record at 3-5 on the year and drops the team to third place in the NFC South standings.

Here are some takeaways from Thursday’s loss:

Another comeback attempt falls short

After the Panthers defense finally forced its first punt of the night with just under three minutes left in the game, Carolina was set up with a chance to tie things up and force overtime. Trailing by eight points, Bridgewater tried to reignite an offense that had been stagnant since essentially the start of the second quarter.

Wide receiver DJ Moore hauled in his first catch of the night on a quick pass, before delivering the game’s biggest play with a crucial 42-yard reception on third-and-17 to keep the Panthers’ hopes alive. 

Three plays later, the dream was crushed as Bridgewater was picked off looking for Moore again. 

“The guy made a play on the ball,” Bridgewater said of his interception. “He fell off of Curtis [Samuel] and he just ended up right there in the right place at the right time. I wish I could’ve just thrown the ball to Curtis or something but in live action, the guy just made a play.”

Jones causes problems

After missing the first matchup between the Panthers and the Falcons in Week 5, Julio Jones had quite the night for Atlanta. The star wideout hauled in seven passes for 137 yards.

The Panthers’ depleted secondary struggled to find any sort of answer to slow Jones down, especially when it came to big chunk plays. Jones and quarterback Matt Ryan connected on a number of big gains to move the Falcons down the field, with five completions covering more than 20 yards. 

Have a day, Curtis Samuel

Jones wasn’t the only receiver to stand out. Panthers wide receiver Curtis Samuel was one of the lone bright spots on the Carolina offense, picking up right where he left off last week. 

For just the third time in his career, Samuel recorded a multi-touchdown game, catching a 29-yard touchdown pass in addition to rushing for a 12-yard touchdown. Still, those scores weren’t enough to lead the Panthers to victory, and Samuel knows it.

“No matter how many touchdowns I score or whatever I do individually, I always feel like I didn’t do enough,” Samuel said. “That happened in the first half. We as a unit, me included, we just have to execute better. That’s all that comes down to.”

With running back Christian McCaffrey still on the sidelines, Samuel has seen more and more reps in the backfield. His presence provides an explosive change of pace to the more physical running of Mike Davis, and the mix proved successful once again Thursday night.

Samuel’s most exciting play came in the second quarter with the touchdown pass. The offense schemed up a flea-flicker as Davis tossed the ball back to quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who then lofted a perfect pass to Samuel in the end zone. 

The touchdown came at a critical time for Carolina on the heels of an interception by cornerback Donte Jackson. The score gave the Panthers a 14-6 lead, but the Falcons were able to pull ahead before halftime.

Teddy gets shaken up

In the third quarter on a third-down play, Bridgewater went down after being kicked in the knee and tripped by Atlanta’s Dante Fowler, Jr. If that wasn’t enough, defensive end Charles Harris added on, launching himself into Bridgewater while he was already on the ground. Both Falcons were flagged, and Harris was ejected.

“You never want to see that happen to your quarterback, so you’ve always got to stand up for him,” Mike Davis said. “I think it was a cheap shot. It was late. Hit him in the neck. That’s just something you just hate to see. That’s unnecessary.”

Bridgewater appeared to suffer an upper body injury to his neck and shoulder area, and was replaced by backup quarterback P.J. Walker, who made his Panthers debut. After a drive and a half, though, Bridgewater returned to the field. 

“I really appreciate Teddy too for his fight to get back into the game,” Davis said of his quarterback. “I know a lot of guys would have quit but he came back and fought so I just want to say I really appreciated that a lot. He didn’t quit. That’s something I love to see and that’s a quarterback I’d love to play for any day.”

Evaluating the team’s progress

Thursday’s loss drops the Panthers to 3-5 on the year reaching the halfway point of the season. The Panthers have played eight games, and all eight have been competitive, which at this point in the team’s renovation process should be considered a win on its own. 

Sure, that doesn’t make the players, coaches or die-hard fans any happier– there are no moral victories in sports– but losing four out of five games by one score is better than most expected. Executing down the stretch and pulling out victories in close games are signs of great teams, and Carolina isn’t there yet. 

“We’ve just got to find ways to finish these games. That can’t be the common thing around here, coming up short,” Bridgewater said. “We’re at the mid-point of the season, I think it’s a good time for us to reflect– see some of the things we’ve done well the first half of the season and see what we need to improve on.”

With McCaffrey due back likely next week, the Panthers offense should be getting a huge boost for the second half of the season, but the schedule gets harder before it gets easier. Matchups against the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs and the current NFC South leaders in Tampa Bay make the next two weeks difficult, but things lighten up considerably after that.

The Panthers take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, November 8 at 1 p.m. in Kansas City on FOX.

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