CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers’ season was on the line Thursday night at Bank of America Stadium.
Atlanta entered the week tied for first in the NFC South, but the Panthers clawed their way back into playoff contention by beating the Falcons 25-15. The win puts Carolina just 1.5 games back of the division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Panthers’ defense responded in dominant fashion on a short week after the Cincinnati Bengals ran over them last Sunday. Atlanta gained less than 300 yards, turned it over twice and ran the ball only 23 times, 10 carries under its per-game average.
Carolina held off a late-game Falcons’ rally thanks to defensive end Marquis Haynes. Up seven with 2:20 to play, the Panthers punted to the Falcons after going three-and-out. But the defense held on for the win as Haynes sacked Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota on second down and fourth down. The Panthers bothered Mariota all night, sacking him five times and hitting him nine times. The defense also made 10 tackles for a loss.
Playing in prime time for the first time in 14 months, Carolina hosted the Falcons in a rematch from just 11 days ago.
Wearing all black everything as the team debuted its new “dark side” uniform, receiver Laviska Shenault sparked the Panthers’ offense in the second quarter. Shenault turned a bubble screen into a 41-yard touchdown. The score put Carolina up 13. Receivers DJ Moore and Terrace Marshall each made key blocks down the left sideline helping Shenault score.
By executing a run-heavy, and quick-throwing offense, PJ Walker quarterbacked Carolina to a necessary victory. His 82.3 quarterback rating benefited from one-read throws while the offense leaned on bell-cow running back D’Onta Foreman. Walker completed 10-of-16 passes for 108 yards. He was only sacked once.
Shenault finished with 59 total yards and a touchdown. Foreman added 130 rushing yards and also scored on 31 carries.
Shenault’s touchdown embodied the evening. He and Foreman carried the offense while defensive tackle Derrick Brown, linebacker Frankie Luvu and Haynes disrupted the Falcons. Brown made six tackles, two went for a loss. Luvu sacked Mariota twice and notched a team-high 12 tackles.
Carolina’s secondary played its best game of the season. Cornerback Jaycee Horn intercepted Mariota in the second quarter on a pass intended for tight end Kyle Pitts. His second interception of the season set up a 49-yard Piñeiro field goal six plays later.
Trailing by 10, the Falcons responded in the third quarter. Consecutive three-and-outs gifted Atlanta favorable field position on its second possession of the second half. Mariota capitalized by hooking up with rookie receiver Drake London a 7-yard touchdown. The score put the Falcons within four points as kicker Younghoe Koo missed the extra point.
But the Panthers bounced right back. Walker pieced together his best drive, completing multiple explosive passes that pushed Carolina into the red zone. Foreman scored from 12 yards out on an outside zone run, putting the Panthers back up 10 with 1:56 left in the third quarter.
Marshall made the game’s longest catch-and-run on the drive. Marshall caught a deep in route and picked up 25 yards after the catch to complete the 43-yard play. Shi Smith made a 17-yard catch two plays later, setting up Foreman’s score.
Atlanta added three much-needed points before half. Safety Xavier Woods put the Falcons in field-goal range due to an unnecessary roughness penalty for hitting receiver Drake London after he made a 14-yard catch across the middle.
But the Panthers dominated the first half. The team earned 10 first downs and outgained Atlanta by 63 yards.
Carolina scored on its first series of the game. The 10-play drive covered 41 yards. Piñeiro nailed a 46-yard field goal seven minutes into the first quarter. Piñeiro made four field goals and one extra point.
Moore sparked the drive when he caught a 20-yard corner route. The next play, backup running back Raheem Blackshear popped a 12-yard run.
Blackshear served as a steady complement to Foreman. The rookie carried it six times for 32 yards.
The Panthers reestablished their style of football Thursday night in front of a national audience. The offensive line pushed Atlanta backward allowing Foreman to often run into the second level untouched.
The win keeps the Panthers postseason hopes alive. Carolina likely will not win enough games to compete for a wild-card spot but the winner of the NFC South earns a home playoff game.
Carolina (3-7) is 2-1 in division play. Next week, the Panthers travel to Baltimore for a Sunday game versus the Ravens. Carolina does not play an NFC South game again until Week 17 (Bucs). The Panthers season finale is at New Orleans on Jan. 8.