Falcons atop dreadful NFC South with 19-17 win over Panthers

Ra'Shede Hageman blocked Graham Gano's 63-yard field goal attempt to win the game.  (Bob Leverone)

Ra’Shede Hageman blocked Graham Gano’s 63-yard field goal attempt to win the game. (Bob Leverone)

It’s strange to say, but the 4-6 Atlanta Falcons are leading the NFC South.

With a 19-17 win over the Carolina Panthers coupled with a New Orleans Saints 27-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Falcons are sitting atop the division.

The win also gave Atlanta back-to-back wins on the road – a feat that looked to be unattainable with the recent woes in away games.

And all the Falcons needed was a block from Ra’Shede Hageman on a last-second 63-yard field goal attempt.

For a large part of the game, the game was a defensive struggle – or, depending on the perspective, a display of offensive ineptitude. It wasn’t until the third quarter that a team was able to score a touchdown.

That score was a two-yard reception by Roddy White that gave the Falcons a 16-3 lead with over six minutes remaining in the third.

If the offensive performance from both teams prior to the Falcons taking a two-score lead was any indicator, then it looked like the Falcons would cruise to victory.

But Carolina’s offense found life.

Atlanta had an opportunity to put the game out of reach after forcing a three-and-out following the touchdown by White, but a fumble by Devin Hester brought the drive to a screeching halt.

A couple of drives later, Cam Newton found Kelvin Benjamin on a 22-yard touchdown. The drive went 71 yards on five plays and took just under two minutes.

After another failed drive from Atlanta, the Panthers found pay dirt again. This time, it took just two plays as Newton connected with Philly Brown from 47 yards out.

And just like that, the Panthers took control of the game with a 17-16 lead.

Aside from a couple of drives, the Falcons weren’t able to move the ball much. But Matt Ryan was able to orchestrate a 12-play, 54-yard drive – capped off with a 44-yard field goal from Matt Bryant, who converted all four field goal attempts – to put the Falcons ahead for good with a little over two minutes left in the game.

Newton was able to get the Panthers in field goal range with 1:26 left, but Graham Gano’s first attempt from 46 yards out was wide left.

Next Sunday, the Falcons finally return to the Georgia Dome and look to get their first win from outside the division as they host the surprising 6-4 Cleveland Browns.

Notes

White needed 73 receiving yards to reach the 10,000-yard career milestone, and he surprassed that mark as he finished the game with an eight-catch, 75-yard performance.

All four of the Falcons’ wins have come within the division: a series sweep over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and wins over both the Panthers and Saints.

Screens don’t appear to be working for the Falcons, but they’re continually being used. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter needs to find the happy medium.

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