Falcons slip into NFC South after 3rd loss in 4 games

CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons were one of the NFL’s biggest stories in the first month of the season.

But any NFC South title aspirations could be starting to fade from the Falcons after three losses in four games, including a disappointing 25-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night.

It was Atlanta’s second loss in five days after falling 20-17 to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, a game it had to have to stay in first place in the division.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “Losing two in a row in five days is a hard pill to swallow. But at the same time, we can take this little break, wash it off, and move on. We have seven games to play.”

The Falcons (4-6) entered the night tied for first place with Tampa Bay but fell a half-game behind the Buccaneers, who play the Seattle Seahawks in Munich, Germany, on Sunday.

“There are a lot of things we have to do better,” Atlanta coach Arthur Smith said. “And it starts everywhere. It starts at the top with me.”

The reality is that the Falcons are a one-dimensional offense, which will only go so far in the NFL.

Atlanta ranked fourth in the league in rushing but 30th in passing.

The Panthers responded by putting additional defenders in the box with the goal of eliminating Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson in the running game and forcing Mariota to beat them through the air. While he threw for 186 yards and two touchdowns, Mariota was also sacked five times and threw an interception.

“They started loading the box,” Mariota said. “Unfortunately, when you’re not making plays in the passing game, they can.”

Mariota made many mistakes.

He was rescued from his biggest by umpires when he simply tossed the ball downfield as he headed to the ground, hoping to complete it. The Panthers intercepted the pass and recovered it for what they thought was a defensive touchdown, but officials ruled Mariota out for contact before he fumbled the ball.

“I was playing a little outside of myself trying to make a play too many times,” Mariota said. “And he hurt our team.”

That has been an area that has hurt him over the years.

“Looking back over my career, that’s when I get into the most trouble: poor pitches, forcing things on the field instead of just fighting and keeping the chains moving,” Mariota said.

Atlanta’s success running the ball (he was averaging 162.9 yards per game on the ground) had masked some of the problems in the passing game. But Atlanta’s aerial deficiencies were never more apparent than in the final series.

Down by seven, the Falcons had the ball at their own 34-yard line with 2:33 left on the clock.

That’s where great quarterbacks thrive.

But the Falcons ran four plays: one resulted in an incomplete pass, another a 1-yard loss and two sacks. They lost a combined 15 yards on possession and turned the ball over on downs.

The Panthers added one last field goal to seal the win.

“We had an opportunity at the end of the fourth quarter in the last two weeks,” Smith said. “And a lot of different things and a lot of different ways, we have to improve. And we have seven weeks left.

The loss also leaves the door open for the Panthers (3-7), who stalk a game and a half behind the Buccaneers and have the best record in the division at 3-1.

Panthers defensive end Brian Burns said he “definitely” feels like the division is on the line.

“But we don’t want to focus on that,” Burns said. “We don’t want to focus too much on the big picture and not see what’s right in front of us.”

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