CHARLOTTE -- Falcons safety Richie Grant characterized Thursday night's game against the Carolina Panthers as a "must-win."
That's always a claim to validate in Week 10, with so much season left to play. There's no doubting, however, that it was an important one. Massively so, as a matter of fact, for a team trying win an NFC South title. Especially, as a matter of fact, after a tough Week 9 loss to the L.A. Chargers.
Atlanta wasn't able to secure an important game on the schedule, emerging from a rain-soaked affair with a 25-15 result at Bank of American Stadium. The Falcons mounted a comeback as time wound down, but couldn't complete it in the end.
Let's dive into what stood out for the Falcons in this divisional contest:
Carolina controls ground game
The Falcons possess one of the NFL's best rushing games. They've exceeded 200 yards three times and 150 on seven occasions, averaging 162 yards per game. Their run defense was pretty good as well, ranking No. 8 overall that category entering Thursday night's action.
That's when things flipped. The Panthers stole a play from the Falcons book, rushing 40-plus times for 200-plus yards. That included some large gains that led to scores.
While the Falcons eventually got well into triple digits and had some bright moments, rushing in the first half was a slog. They had just 33 yards on 12 carries early on, which in turn led their offense to struggle.
The Falcons couldn't string enough passes together to score on the regular or erase a deficit they dealt with from the beginning. Marcus Mariota sent a few errant passes skyward, including a few to open receivers. As the game wore on and the Falcons remained down multiple scores, Carolina's defense was able to blitz and overwhelm Mariota's protection.
Being down and required to throw often is not a place where the Falcons, or any team for that matter, prefer to operate. The offense wasn't bailed out by turnovers, instead forced to claw back in it the old-fashioned way. The Falcons cut it to within one score on a 25-yard touchdown strike to Khadarel Hodge. Then the Falcons forced a three and out to set up the possibility of a game-tying drive with two-and-a-half minutes remaining.
They just didn't do anything with it.
That wasn't in the cards, and the Falcons ended up losing a tough one where the didn't set the tone.
Getting beat in the run game was an odd, unexpected turn especially after the Falcons had been a dominant force on the ground, both running the football and defending against it. Struggling in those areas led to a negative game script and, ultimately, an unwelcome result.
Explosive Panthers plays prove costly
The Falcons didn't give up a ton of big-yardage plays in this one, but those they allowed proved costly. The first was a 41-yard run Laviska Shenault Jr. – it was a pitch to a receiver in motion – that ended up the game's first touchdown.
The second didn't directly result in a score, but it set one up at an inopportune time. With the score at 13-9 relatively late in the third quarter, right after the Drake London caught a touchdown pass, Terrance Marshall Jr. beat Falcons cornerback Rashad Fenton and took a short P.J. Walker pass 43 yards. The Panthers took yards in chunks after that, save one penalty, before D'Onta Foreman scored from 12 yards out.
Scoring proved difficult and the Falcons had ground to make up – more on that below – leaving Atlanta back down two scores with the third quarter winding down.
Another slow start on the road
The Falcons have struggled starting fast on the road, falling behind multiple scores in the first half of their last three games away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The third occurred on Thursday night against Carolina, with a sluggish offense start, an inability to get off the field and a turnover. That helped Carolina build a two-score advantage at 13-0, with an explosive touchdown run and two field goals. That didn't include a 15-play, nearly-nine-minute drive that ended in zero points.
The Falcons salvaged three points out of the opening quarters with a 33-yard field goal from Younghoe Koo as the second quarter expired. Atlanta has shown an ability to erase deficits, but it's still difficult to claw back in game after game. Starting faster on the road was a point of emphasis, especially after going down big in Tampa and Cincinnati. The Falcons were able to crank things up at home, but the troublesome slow starts emerged again in Carolina.
Call for questions
Let's refill the mailbag with questions addressing what you saw during Thursday night's game. Submit them right here for inclusion in Friday's mailbag.
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers during Week 10.