It's an NFC South battle in Charlotte as the Falcons take on the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on Christmas Eve. Here are photos from the game.
It would've been hard to script a better start for Matt Ryan. For the first time in his career, the veteran signal caller completed 10 straight passes to begin the contest, tallying 112 yards in that span. His first incompletion didn't occur until 10:14 was left in the second frame, and his first touchdown, a 26-yard throw to Joshua Perkins, was his 33rdTD pass of 2016, which set a new franchise record for touchdown throws in a single season.
In total, Ryan completed 27 of 33 passes for 277 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions – good for a 121.8 QB rating.
"Obviously, those don't happen without a lot of people making big plays," Ryan said. "And I'm lucky to be surrounded by a lot of really good players."
"It's just exciting, guys breaking records," Devonta Freeman added. "Matt Ryan, I'm just excited for him. I think he deserves the MVP. If he doesn't (win it) he's my MVP."
Unsung Heroes Step Up: Without the services of Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper, tight ends Perkins and DJ Tialavea rose to the occasion, as each reeled in a first-half touchdown catch to give the Falcons an early lead. Perkins' score came on the game's opening possession; Tialavea's came from one yard out to cap an 11-play drive.
"They're not playing like (fourth or fifth) tight ends. Those guys are playing really, really well," Ryan said. "Perk, the first touchdown of the game, that was an unbelievable catch. Just awesome. Awesome ball skills to go up and high point that ball, be strong in traffic and make the catch. That kind of got us going. We talk about trying to set it off at the beginning of the game, and that play certainly set it off.
"And then DJ, I'm just really proud of DJ. To be activated off the practice squad this week, I think his family flew in at the last minute. For him to score and play as well as he did for the entire day – he played a number of snaps for us. I'm really proud of him. He's earned it. That was really, to me, one of the cooler parts of the game."
Defense Shuts Down Newton:Atlanta's defense turned in another strong performance, holding the Panthers to 16 points and 302 yards from scrimmage. Cam Newton had a particularly rough day: The 2015 MVP completed just six of 18 passes in the first half for 58 yards and two interceptions – one by Brian Poole, the other by Jalen Collins. It was the first NFL pick for each.
In total, Newton went 18-for-43 for 198 yards, one TD and the aforementioned INTs. Vic Beasley Jr. said the Falcons wanted to "try to rattle Cam, because you know if you can get him off balance, it can affect the whole team," and they certainly accomplished that goal.
"I think it was a collective effort," Dwight Freeney said. "I think it was all phases. We stopped the run; we went into it wanting to stop the run. That was our mentality. It was what we wanted to do. So when you can make a team one-dimensional, especially a team like that where they don't really want to pass the ball, we're going to have some success. Hats off to the front seven. They did a great job. Hats off to the defensive backs getting turnover after turnover. And the coaches, as well – they had a great game plan."
Offense Shows its Depth:Tialavea was the 13th player Matt Ryan has thrown a touchdown to in 2016, which is now the most in a single season in NFL history. And thanks to Tevin Coleman's 55-yard score, the Falcons have two running backs – Coleman and Devonta Freeman – with 10 total TDs in the same season for the first time in club history.
Overall, 10 Falcons notched a reception on Saturday; five had 30 or more receiving yards.
"It doesn't matter (who gets the ball)," Freeman said. "One thing about it, we drew numbers. We just keep working hard. I'm just as psyched for the whole offense. We're explosive and I think the more we all keep working together as a unit, I feel like we'll still be dangerous."
Julio Makes Productive Return:Julio Jones returned following a two-game absence and looked like his usual self, registering a team-high 60 receiving yards on four catches. The Pro Bowl WR will enter Week 17 with 1,313 receiving yards – the eighth-most a Falcon has ever had in one campaign.