ATLANTA — The Carolina Panthers lost their starting quarterback Sunday but won for the first time in five weeks, beating the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, 19-13.
Panthers quarterback Sam Darnold left the game with a concussion with 7:37 left in the fourth quarter after an 8-yard run when he got hit hard — and legally — by Atlanta linebacker Foyesade Oluokun. Darnold was trying to score on the play, but was stopped at the Atlanta 3. The Panthers eventually scored on the drive behind backup quarterback P.J. Walker, but Darnold left for the locker room and was diagnosed with a concussion. His status for next week is unclear.
The Panthers-Falcons game was definitely second billing in Atlanta on Sunday. The lower half of Mercedes-Benz Stadium was half-full at best. But the Atlanta Braves were the city’s big headliner Sunday, scheduled to start a potential World Series-clinching Game 5 about 13 miles away on Sunday night against the Houston Astros.
Still, the game was very important to the Panthers, trying to break a four-game losing streak against their old NFC South rival. This time the Panthers made good on their promise to run the ball more, collecting a season-high 203 yards on the ground with a balanced running game (despite Chuba Hubbard’s lost fumble on the very first offensive play). After running the ball only 17 times the week before, the Panthers had 47 rushing attempts Sunday (fourth-highest in team history). Both the Panthers’ rushing yards and their rushing attempts were highs in the 24-game Matt Rhule era.
Another huge part of the win: Panthers kicker Zane Gonzalez hit four straight field goals, including one from 51 yards and one from a career-long 57, to give Carolina a 12-10 lead in the third quarter. Gonzalez won the kicking duel vs. Atlanta’s Younghoe Koo, whose miss from 45 yards early in the fourth quarter could have given Atlanta a 13-12 lead. It was Koo’s first miss of the season.
Instead, the score remained 12-10 and Carolina was entrusted with preserving a rare fourth-quarter lead. They did so on a gritty drive that included two key Darnold runs, one of which got a first down and the second one on that 8-yarder in which Darnold got hit so brutally that he had to come out of the game.
Walker came in and looked shaky. He nearly threw an interception from the Falcons’ 1 and then took a delay-of-game penalty. Walker then got bailed out when Hubbard sliced in for a 6-yard TD. Gonzalez’s extra point gave Carolina a 19-10 lead with 6:30 to go.
Atlanta couldn’t come back after that, as the Panthers defense had a strong performance with two interceptions and only three points allowed in the second half.
Koo did hit a late field goal and then attempt an onside kick with 0:16 left. But it was recovered by Robby Anderson to clinch the win for Carolina.
Other notes from the game:
— Former New England Patriot cornerback Stephon Gilmore made his highly anticipated debut as a Panther cornerback. His first notable play? A pass interference call on Atlanta tight end Kyle Pitts. After that, though, Gilmore nullified Pitts as a pass option on several occasions. And on Atlanta’s final possession, Gilmore intercepted Ryan when he threw at Pitts to clinch the game.
— It was the first time I can remember the Mercedes-Benz Stadium roof being open for a Falcons-Panthers game. Although the Falcons routinely open the roof when the weather is good, Carolina normally plays the game in Atlanta later in the season.
— Fox Sports showed a graphic early in the game mentioning that the Panthers had an NFL-high 20 dropped passes by receivers before the game began. Carolina then had three more before halftime: a critical dropped touchdown pass by DJ Moore, a short throw to Royce Freeman and what would have been a 20-yard throw to tight end Tommy Tremble.
— The 24th drop of the Panthers season came when Anderson had a 20-yard pass fall into his hands, only to have it jarred out with a huge hit from Atlanta safety Erik Harris. Anderson stayed down before finally walking off the field under his own power; Panthers safety Sam Franklin began jawing at Harris later about the hit before the two were separated. Harris’ hit was clean, and he wasn’t penalized.
— Both teams had key offensive weapons out. The Falcons missed Calvin Ridley, their best receiver, who was out due to a personal matter. Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey missed his fifth straight game with a hamstring injury. McCaffrey could return from injured reserve and play next week in Carolina’s home game against New England.
— The Panthers defense obviously benefited from the return of linebacker Shaq Thompson, whose speed helped snuff out several potential big plays and whose interception of Ryan negated one Falcon drive that would have almost certainly resulted in points.