CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Thursday night games may not be all that popular among NFL players. For the Falcons and Panthers, this week’s NFC South matchup can’t get here soon enough.
It’s a good chance for both to wash the taste of monumental mental mistakes out of their mouths and put Sunday’s losses behind them.
The Falcons (1-6) allowed a potential win to slip away when running back Todd Gurley accidentally scored a touchdown with 1:04 remaining and his team looking to set up for a short, winning field goal. That left the Lions enough time to drive 75 yards and score a touchdown and kick the extra point to win 23-22.
Carolina’s (3-4) miscue came when Teddy Bridgewater took an 8-yard sack on third-and-11 at the Saints 39 with his team trailing 27-24 with 2 minutes left. Facing a fourth-and-19, coach Matt Rhule sent Joey Slye on the field to try an NFL-record 65-yard field goal attempt, which fell a couple feet short. Rhule called the mistake a “fatal blow.”
“Playing on Thursday night makes you get out of the funk that you’re in after a tough loss,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “So, I think getting back into a game plan quickly, talking with coaches, starting to make plans for Thursday night kind of helps."
Or, as Bridgewater said, it gives his team a chance to “flush” the last game and move on.
“You have to turn the page," Bridgewater said.
The Panthers beat the Falcons 23-16 less than three weeks ago in Atlanta, with Bridgewater throwing for 313 yards and two touchdowns, and running back Mike Davis piling up 149 yards from scrimmage. The Falcons had a chance to tie the game late, but cornerback Rasul Douglas intercepted Ryan in the end zone. The loss dropped the Falcons to 0-5, and a few hours later the team fired coach Dan Quinn and replaced him with Raheem Morris.
“We’re playing a team that probably feels like they let one get away the last time they played us,” Bridgewater said.
Rhule is “hopeful” that 2019 All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey will be cleared to play after missing the last five games with a high ankle sprain. “I want to win today, so I’m hopeful that it is today,” Rhule said of McCaffrey’s return. “All I can say is, won’t be a minute too early.”
McCaffrey returned to practice on Tuesday after being designated to return from injured reserve. He didn't play in the first game against the Falcons, but had been off to a strong start this year with 233 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns in his first two games.
Ryan is 16-9 against the Panthers with 39 touchdown passes with 17 interceptions, but he was held without a scoring pass in the last meeting. It was Ryan’s second straight game without a TD pass — but his production has enjoyed a sharp increase following Julio Jones’ return from a hamstring injury. Ryan has five TD passes with no interceptions in the last two games, including four touchdowns in a win at Minnesota.
For the season, Ryan has 12 TDs and three interceptions. He threw only one TD pass against the Lions but completed 31 of 42 passes. It was his second straight game completing more than 70% of his attempts.
Calvin Ridley continues to find ways to reach the end zone. Ridley has six touchdown receptions, including one in Sunday’s loss to Detroit that allowed him to pass Andre Rison’s team record for most TD catches (22) in a player’s first three seasons. Ridley now has 23 with more than half of the season remaining. His six TD catches are fourth most through seven games in franchise history.
Jones, the seven-time Pro Bowl selection, had 20 TD catches through his first three seasons in Atlanta.
There has been speculation Ryan and Jones could be trade targets if the struggling Falcons are ready for a massive roster rebuild after firing general manager Thomas Dimitroff and Quinn. Owner Arthur Blank and team president Rich McKay each said they want to leave such major roster decisions to a new GM and coach, making a trade-deadline deal involving a top player extremely unlikely.
Ryan and Jones were asked this week if they would welcome trades. Each said no.
“I know who I am,” Jones said. “I know what I’ve got going. I know what I mean to this team.”
Ryan, 35, repeated his wish to complete his career with the Falcons.
“I don’t worry about that stuff,” Ryan said of the speculation. “I don’t think about it."
WINNING THIRD DOWNS
Injuries have caught up to the Panthers' defense which has really struggled getting off the field on third downs, allowing opponents to convert 56.3% of the time. Last week the Saints converted 12 of 14 third-down chances against Carolina and controlled the clock for most of the game. “Give credit to them, they came out there and won every third down,” Panthers linebacker Shaq Thompson said. “We just have to do better.”
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