Falcons face tough road to home-field in NFC

For the first time this season, the Atlanta Falcons lost a game that wasn’t even close.

While the odds still favor the Falcons to win home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the task looks a little more difficult after a 30-20 loss at Carolina in which they were thoroughly spanked.

Next week, Atlanta (11-2) hosts the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, which began the day leading the NFC East at 7-6, and could face its first losing streak of the season. Traditionally, the Falcons have played well after a loss during head coach Mike Smith’s five seasons — their record is 19-3 — and they also own a fantastic record at home under Smith. Thus far they are unbeaten at the Georgia Dome this season.

So while it’s possible that the Falcons were caught looking past Carolina (4-9) to next week, it’s also doubtful. The Falcons needed a 59-yard pass while backed up at their own 1-yard line in the final minute of regulation to pull off a miraculous 30-28 win over the Panthers on Sept. 30.

In that game, the Falcons yielded 199 rushing yards to the Panthers, which alarmed Smith. Rushing defense has been Atlanta’s Achilles’ heel this season, Smith has said, but the Falcons have managed since then to improve in that area, even if it has come in fits and starts.

So when Newton told Atlanta media members on a conference call Wednesday that “I don’t think it will be a problem” to duplicate that feat, it seemed a boast. Instead, for all intents and purposes, he backed it up.

The Panthers rushed for 195 yards with 72 of them coming on a touchdown scamper by Newton that practically put the game out of reach just 3:59 into the second half and the Panthers up 23-0.

The rest was basically window dressing for the Falcons. Being the comeback specialists they are, the Falcons rallied to 23-13 on an 11-yard touchdown catch by Julio Jones 63 seconds into the fourth quarter, but a tough call went against them. Roddy White appeared to have caught a two-point conversion to pull the Falcons within one score, but the officials on the field ruled the play incomplete. The Falcons challenged the play but lost.

Later, they were driving but faced fourth-and-8 and, under pressure, quarterback Matt Ryan threw an interception with 6:19 left in the game.

The Falcons had another poor day tackling and, as such, allowed another long touchdown, as DeAngelo Williams scored on a 53-yard screen pass with 4:11 left in regulation to put the Panthers up 30-13. The Falcons added a score during garbage time, but, again, the Panthers had very few moments in this game to be worried about the outcome.

Most of that was because of a first half in which the Falcons were dominated in a way that has seldom happened in Smith’s tenure. The Falcons were outgained 270 yards to 35, as they were shut out for the first time all season during the first half, as Ryan — whose final numbers were strong with 342 passing yards and a 94.1 rating — and the offense sputtered for two quarters for the second time in two weeks. In Week 13, they survived against New Orleans because the defense came up with five interceptions of Drew Brees.

On Sunday, the defense, playing without two starters in the secondary — cornerback Asante Samuel (shoulder) and safety William Moore (hamstring), named the conference’s defensive player of the week that week for his two interceptions — provided no such magic. The Panthers dominated the Falcons, winning time of possession 23:48 to 6:12. The Falcons’ huge success of the half was forcing the Panthers to kick three field goals, otherwise, the score would have been much worse.

In fact, Carolina scored on its first five possessions. The Falcons forced their first punt with 2:45 left in the third quarter.

Now, the Falcons, having already won the NFC South, must regroup.

If they go 2-1, they will earn home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Yet the Giants present a difficult opponent — one who ended the Falcons’ postseason last January, 24-2, at MetLife Stadium — and who are in a dogfight for their playoff lives. Then the Falcons go on the road to face a Detroit team that could be eliminated from playoff contention by then. Finally, Atlanta hosts Tampa Bay (6-7), who also could be eliminated by the time the season finale rolls around at the Georgia Dome. Irrespective of what happens with the Lions and Bucs’ futures, both could be difficult opponents.

In the scheme of a long NFL season, a loss like the Falcons’ on Sunday wasn’t hugely surprising. It just was out of character for them in what has been a stellar 2012 season.

For the Falcons to fulfill their playoff aspirations, they will have to avoid any further repeats.