- D. Orlando Ledbetter The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Falcons linebackers asked for the challenge - and they got it.
With the playoffs on the line, the unit wanted to play the Panthers man-to-man in an effort to stop quarterback Cam Newton and rookie running back Christian McCaffrey.
Deion Jones led the way with 10 tackles as the defense bottled up the Panthers’ multi-faceted duo on the way to a 22-10 victory on Sunday that wrapped up the sixth and final playoff berth in the NFC. Newton and McCaffrey rushed for 201 yards in the previous meeting on Nov. 5, a 20-17 Carolina victory.
“We keep it on our linebackers all night,” free safety Ricardo Allen said. “They asked for the challenge to get them man-to-man and our linebackers did it. They made the plays and we shut them down.”
Newton was held to 59 yards on 11 carries and McCaffrey had just 14 yards on six carries. He caught five passes for 40 yards.
“Every time they got the ball to (McCaffrey), they were right there for him,” Allen said.
The Falcons defense ended up with three interceptions, by Allen, strong safety Keanu Neal and cornerback Robert Alford.
Newton completed 14 of 34 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown. He finished with a pitiful passer rating on 31.5.
“We always say on the defensive side, we don’t take nothing around from our offense,” Allen said. “We are not battling with them, but we want people to know this is a defensive team too.
“This is a three-headed monster. You have to fight our offense, defense and special teams. You not only have to play against Julio (Jones) and Matt (Ryan). You have to worry about us also.”
The Panthers rushed for 201 yards in the previous meeting. With the playoff hopes on the line, the Falcons held the Panthers to 87 yards rushing.
“We challenged the guys that tackling was really going to be on point in this game,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “Not just (on) the quarterback but the running backs, receivers and tight ends. They’ve got a full complement of guys, so they make you go through the whole process, Carolina does. They’ve got a big package with lots of versatility, know how they feature the guys, use them, tight ends, running backs, quarterback runs.
“The challenge was there for the (defense), and it was certainly one that I felt was one of their better performances this year.”
The offensive players lauded the defense for their stout effort against the Panthers.
“Defense is playing phenomenal,” wide receiver Julio Jones said. “They are playing lights out for us. Offensively, I can speak on that. As far as us, we did enough to get the win. Obviously, we can do better, but today we did enough to win. The defense has been playing lights out for us.”
The defense has held the last five opponents to 21 points or less. The offense is now 10-0 when scoring more than 20 points in a game.
“The defense has been playing great ball,” Jones said. “They got us two or three picks today. They played great today for us, and they have been playing great for us.”
The Falcons, after reaching the Super Bowl last season, were elated to advance to the playoffs. They will face the Rams in the Wild Card round. No Super Bowl losing team has returned to the big game since the 1994 Bills.
“You are trying to get to the big show,” Allen said. “You want to give yourselves a chance. I’m not saying that’s its automatic that we make it to the big show. But we gave ourselves a chance to keep going.”
Neal had a big hit on Panthers tight end Greg Olsen in the first half. He caught only one of his nine targeted passes.
“We played really well,” Neal said. “That starts at practice as well as taking advantage of each day. Once you get to the game, it gets easy. Continuing to work in practice was huge for us.”
Neal sensed that the unit was in for a big game.
“Yeah, I felt that,” Neal said. “But the biggest thing for us is we didn’t fall into complacency. We didn’t just get comfortable. We kept fighting and kept playing.”
Neal’s interception was the first of his NFL career.
“It was cool,” Neal said. “Debo (Deion Jones) did a great job of staying under on the hook getting the ball tipped up, and I was able to make the play. It was cool to get the first one out of the way.”
The Falcons believe their defense will travel in the playoffs.
“It felt good,” Neal said. “We’re in control of our own destiny. We’re placing it in our hands. That was a big thing for us, so I’m glad we got the W.”