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What stood out in Falcons' NFC South clash with Carolina Panthers

Falcons lose late lead, opportunity to take control in the division

ATLANTA -- The NFC South was, well, bunched up heading into Sunday's action. The Falcons sat atop a division where every team was within a game of first place, though Atlanta had an opportunity to create separation with a victory over the Carolina Panthers.

Win and they'd own the cat bird's seat. A loss and Carolina takes the top spot, plus the division gets even more muddled.

The Falcons took full advantage of this golden opportunity. They completed a crazy 37-34 victory over the Panthers here at Mercedes-Benz Stadium that gave Atlanta sole possession of first place in the NFC South.

Let's take a look at what stood out for the Falcons in this contest:

Weird, wild finish

The Falcons fell behind late but showed up big with just a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, executing a touchdown drive full of big-time plays by quarterback Marcus Mariota.

The Falcons quarterback hit Tyler Allgeier on a 16-yard catch and run. The Drake London caught an accurate pass for 17 more. Then Damiere Byrd came through with the play of the day, a 47-yard touchdown catch where the speedster ran through the Panthers defense, helped by an excellent Drake London block, to put the Falcons ahead for good.

The touchdown happened so fast that the Panthers had 2 minutes, 14 seconds to counter. Carolina wasn't able to the first time, but ended up getting another shot after a Younghoe Koo field goal. That's when D.J. Moore came through with a 62-yard touchdown grab with 12 seconds remaining. He took his helmet off in celebration and was penalized for it, forcing Carolina to take a longer extra point that was missed.

That sent this crazy game to overtime. That's where things went bad for the Falcons. Marcus Mariota threw an interception to C.J. Henderson, who returned it 54 yards and into field goal range. Eddy Pineiro missed it from 33 yards out, giving the Falcons second life.

They were able to take possession and drive into field goal range, thanks to a Damiere Byrd reception and a long Marcus Mariota run. Unlike Pineiro, Koo didn't miss. He sent it through the uprights from 41 yards out to seal the victory.

Good things happen with Kyle Pitts heavily involved

Kyle Pitts was a hot topic of conversation this week, and not for the first time, due to his relative lack of targets and production.

The star tight end was heavily involved in this one and made a huge difference. Pitts scored his second touchdown of the season in the second quarter, giving the Falcons an early lead. He had two key catches on that drive, a 10-yard reception on second-and-long and a 26-yard catch to enter the red zone.

He was instrumental in a third-quarter touchdown drive, with a nine-yard catch that moved the chains.

He also had a 33-yard catch and run that led to a field goal providing a slight lead midway through the fourth quarter.

The Falcons needed those contributions in a tight game where every point was vital.

Defense gets on the board at big moment

Carolina quarterback P.J. Walker was flustered by a blitzing Mykal Walker and threw the ball hastily to avoid a sack. Lorenzo Carter saw the inaccurate ball fly, stepped in front of it for an easy interception. He found a path to the end zone and scored from 28 yards out.

The play provided a 14-10 halftime lead and a huge momentum shift. The Falcons had just given up the lead and then given the ball pack after an unsuccessful series, with the possibility of a 2-for-1 thanks to the Panthers receiving the ball after half.

Carolina ended up scoring three points with the third quarter's first series, but the Falcons still kept the lead thanks to Carter's touchdown.

It was the Falcons' second defensive touchdown of the season, after Jaylinn Hawkins recovered A.J. Terrell's fumble after an attempted scoop and score versus San Francisco. Atlanta went on to win that one, with the defensive score playing an important role.

Getting big, relatively unusual moments like that in your favor normally do.

Injured defensive backs sorely missed

The Falcons played their first game of the season without star cornerback A.J. Terrell, who missed this game and most of the last one with a hamstring injury.

He's a talent that doesn't get targeted often and typically makes plays on the ball when he is. His replacements didn't fare as well, with explosive pass plays a regular occurrence. That ultimately hurt the Falcons.

It was integral to a second-half Panthers touchdown that tied it at 21-21, as talented Panthers receiver D.J. beat Cornell Armstrong deep.

It happened again late in the fourth quarter, with another Moore catch on 3rd-and-13 that went for 21 against Darren Hall, who has taken over one outside cornerback slot with Casey Hayward on injured reserve.

The biggest, however, came on that 62-yard touchdown volley to Moore that set up this crazy ending.

Plays like that happened over and over again, well beyond those mentioned above. It was a significant issue, one that could impact the Falcons in the future, especially if Terrell is unavailable for any stretch down the road.

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Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers during Week 8.

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