UPDATE: For the full game column, click here.
The Falcons are dead. It's official this time. With a chance to win the NFC South and go to the playoffs, abysmal won-loss record notwithstanding, they lost to the Carolina Panthers 34-3 at the Georgia Dome and finished the season at 6-10. I'll return soon with my column off the game. Until then, here are my three "Short Takes" on the game.
1. Goodbye Smitty but shame on Arthur Blank: The Falcons went into the game with a chance to go to the playoffs if they defeated Carolina. But in one of your all-time buzz-kill moments -- and one that was orchestrated by the team's owner -- ESPN reported before the game that the Falcons already had hired a search firm to look for a potential replacement for coach Mike Smith. This isn't about whether Smith, for the past several weeks, has had a realistic chance to keep his job. (He hasn't.) This is about dreadful timing by Blank. He could've waited on this, and it certainly was within his power to make sure this news didn't get out. Understand, only two sides will know when an owner hires a search firm: 1) The owner; 2) The search firm. And search firms don't talk. Say what you want about Smith, his coaches and the team's players but none of them deserved to be treated like that by Blank before the biggest game of the season.
2. It starts up front -- and ended up front: The Falcons' biggest problems in the past two seasons (combined record: 10-22) have come on the offensive and defensive lines. So it should come as no surprise that in their 2014 exit, they were dominated on both lines. Matt Ryan was helpless (not that anything excuses throwing two pick-sixes). He was pressured by Carolina's defensive front throughout and and sacked six times. The defense seldom pressured Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. A case could be made there was incremental progress in pass protection this season but the line was undone by injuries. But the team's defensive plan to clog space in the middle with big tackles (Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai) and free pass rushers on the outside (Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Babineaux, Osi Umenyiora) never developed. It was a significant fail this season by general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
3. Panthers may not be an easy out: I understand winning the NFC South shouldn't come with a parade or a playoff berth this season. But Carolina could prove to be a difficult opponent in the postseason. The Panthers were 3-8-1 before winning their last four games and Newton is playing his best football of the season. Accuracy has been the biggest knock on Newton but he was on target early in the game and had would-be long touchdown pass dropped by Kelvin Benjamin.