ATLANTA – The Falcons are back in the postseason, and their defense is the primary reason why.
If Atlanta's young and promising defensive unit was a liability last season, it has turned into arguably the team's greatest strength this year.
Since allowing 31 points to the Seahawks on the road, the Falcons' defense has given up no more than 23 points over their final six games. Against the Panthers, they once again proved difficult to score against, allowing just 10 points.
In the first meeting between these two NFC South foes, the Panthers gained 201 rushing yards against the Falcons, the highest total given up by this defense in 2017. On Sunday, Atlanta held Carolina to 87 yards on the ground, with the majority of those yards coming on Cam Newton scrambles. The Panthers' running backs combined for just 30 yards in the game.
"We challenge the guys that tackling was really going to be on point in this game," Quinn said. "Not just from the quarterback, but the running backs, receivers, tight ends. They've got a full complement of guys.
"The challenge was there for the D. And it was certainly one that I felt was one of their better performances this year. Toughness, finishing, battling for one another, the communication was on point. And we certainly appreciated the fans' involvement on third down, as well."
The Panthers couldn't manage to get anything going through the air, either. Newton completed only 41.2 percent of his passes against a Falcons pass defense that seemed to key on every one of the Panthers' routes and knocked passes away with ease. In total, the Panthers gained 161 passing yards and 248 total yards. Newton was picked off three times, too, including Keanu Neal's first career interception.
Oftentimes throughout the second half of the season, the Falcons have relied on their defense to stifle opposing teams while their offense works itself into a rhythm. That was the case again Sunday, as the Falcons' defense preserved a 7-0 lead until the very end of the first half, allowing the offense to make halftime adjustments and add to the lead in the second half.
The emergence of players like Grady Jarrett, Deion Jones, Keanu Neal and Takkarist McKinley, among many others, have turned this defense into one capable of not just keeping the Falcons in games but winning them outright.
The Falcons held the Panthers to 5-of-15 on third downs, a conversion rate of 33 percent, and sacked Newton twice. Aside from a long drive at the end of the first half, in which Carolina converted three third downs of third-and-9 or longer, the Falcons' defense was nearly perfect.
Atlanta hasn't generated the number of turnovers that coach Dan Quinn would like to see, although it had the three aforementioned interceptions on Sunday, but it's perhaps even more encouraging that the Falcons' defense is finding other ways to get opponents off the field.
"We've been talking about the ball – and you probably get tired of hearing me discuss that," Quinn said. "We knew in a division game, this was going to be the factor. So, for us to take care of [the ball] and finish plus-3 [in the turnover margin] that was the factor."
If the Falcons are to make a run in the postseason, it's likely that the defense will be the unit to make it happen.