The front seven was tested all day, with the defense giving up 199 yards on the ground. The offensive line, for all their improvement this season, reverted back to their old 2011 ways. Even Matt Ryan threw a costly pick in the end zone.
But for all the sore spots and miscues, somehow, some way, Atlanta managed to come away with a victory.
Matt Ryan can't throw the deep ball
I love the lazy analysts that say that.
When I saw the Falcons backed up on the one-yard line with under a minute left to play and no timeouts, I could only think of the amazing comeback win Ryan pulled off against the Bears as a rookie. With the game on the line, he showed the poise and downfield accuracy to put his pass in the perfect spot.
Back to the present. With the odds stacked against Atlanta, Ryan takes advantage of poor coverage and hits Roddy White on a phenomenal 59-yard pass down the left side of the field. Two short completions out of bounds later, the Falcons are within Matt Bryant field goal range.
Calm under pressure, executed to perfection. Ryan finished the day 25-of-40 passing for 369 yards and three touchdowns. Sure, he threw an ugly interception in the end zone, but considering how little protection he got from the offensive line, this was a commendable performance for Ryan.
The offense just seemed to gel under his command. Most of this game was far from pretty, but the last drive was a thing of beauty.
And what else is there to say about Bryant? From 40 yards out and with the game on the line, he was pure money. He's yet to miss a field goal this season, and seems to always come through with a clutch kick.
Falcons win, let's suppress those negative memories!
As I said, the Panthers exposed the Falcons as a very beatable team for a large chunk of this football game. And if it makes anyone feel better, I kind of saw this coming in my Sunday preview:
So could the 3-0 Falcons, whose rushing defense is currently allowing an average of 128.4 rushing yards per game this season, be sleeping on a Panthers team that was just embarassed by the Giants in front of a national audience? You bet.
The run defense was soft, and Ryan was sacked seven timed on the day. And I can't even blame Sam Baker!
Tyson Clabo was horrid against Charles Johnson, and Mike Johnson wasn't much better in relief. We know that Clabo hasn't been playing at 100% health all season, but he was noticeably awful all game.
If he's allowing five sacks in three quarters, why is he even playing? Give the man a week off. Try Johnson one more time.
There's also that run defense. Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart all had their way on the ground, busting through the front seven time and again. The Falcons only stopped Carolina on their final third down by a sheer stroke of fumbly luck.
Newton was still limited to just over 200 yards through the air, but those passing lanes were only open in the first place because Atlanta was letting the three-headed Carolina rushing attack average 5.7 yards per carry.
The pass rush was pretty anemic as well. Officially, the Falcons recorded 3.0 sacks, but John Abraham's came on the last play of the game, and Sean Weatherspoon's came maybe one foot behind the line of scrimmage.
When Mike Nolan called blitzes, they often fizzled out. Newton had time to throw, and when he didn't, he scrambled. He's not unstoppable. The Buccaneers and Giants clearly found a way to stop him. It's hard to say, but in one offseason the Falcons have gone from great against the run to very, very mediocre.
A win is a win is a win
It's not all gloom and doom, because the Falcons needed a team to scare them.
Just like the UGA Bulldawgs, this week marked the first time all season that Atlanta found itself in a four-quarter dogfight. For the first time this season, they actually trailed their opponents.
It is perhaps a blessing that the Falcons walked away with a win this week. But deserved or not, Mike Smith's squad is 4-0 with a three-game lead on the NFC South.
Call him conservative or even question his fourth-down judgments, but Smitty's teams always seem to win the games they are supposed to, and that is much rarer in the NFL than folks realize. Ugly win, but a win nonetheless.