CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Atlanta Falcons are sinking fast, with seemingly no life preserver in sight to save their once-promising season.
The Falcons’ season hit a low Sunday as they fell to the unbeaten Carolina Panthers 38-0, their sixth straight loss and seventh in the last eight games.
Their 5-0 start now seems like a distant memory.
“It was about as badly as we can play,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “That’s frustrating. It’s tough as a player (and) it’s tough as a coach, for sure. Nobody wants to be a part of that.”
Atlanta (6-7) trails Seattle and Minnesota by two games in the NFC wild-card race with three games left, including one more at home against the Panthers (13-0) on Dec. 27.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn called the loss “unacceptable.”
“We look for smart, tough and finish,” Quinn said. “That’s what I expect from our club. When that doesn’t happen, yes, I have a lot of disappointment.”
Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman was held to 40 yards rushing on 12 carries and Ryan to 224 yards passing. Together, they accounted for three of Atlanta’s four turnovers. Julio Jones had 88 yards on seven catches, but the Falcons had only one pass play of longer than 20 yards. They allowed five sacks.
Meanwhile, Carolina’s Cam Newton continued to look like a Most Valuable Player, slicing up the Falcons’ secondary.
The Atlanta native added to his impressive resume, completing 15 of 21 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns as the Panthers clinched a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
Newton has already thrown for a career-high 28 touchdown passes — with three games left to play.
Newton connected on scoring strikes of 74 and 46 yards to Ted Ginn Jr., and Jonathan Stewart ran for a touchdown as the Panthers scored on their first three possessions to take a 21-0 lead in the first quarter.
“They came out on fire,” linebacker O’Brien Schofield said. “You can obviously see why they’re undefeated. They came and they played their game. They out-executed us in many different facets, and there’s not much more to say about that.”
Newton also threw a 4-yard TD pass to Ed Dickson in the final seconds of the first half before leaving for good at the end of the third quarter with Carolina up 38. He finished with a career-high quarterback rating of 153.3, and the Panthers won their 17th straight regular-season game.
Carolina’s 38-point win matched the largest margin of victory in team history. The Panthers outgained Atlanta 424-230.
However, there were some scary moments for Carolina on the injury front.
Stewart (left ankle), who ran for 75 yards on 10 carries, and tight end Greg Olsen (left knee) left the game in the second quarter and did not return. But Rivera said both players could have returned and were held out because the team had a big lead.
Rivera said starting cornerback Bene Benwikere broke his left leg and is done for the season.
The Panthers jumped on the Falcons early, scoring on touchdown drives of 80, 93 and 80 yards on their first three possessions.
After the Falcons won the coin toss and elected to defer, the Panthers went to work establishing the ground attack.
Stewart rushed five times for 52 yards on the opening drive, including a 44-yard burst. He capped the drive by leaping over the pile for a 1-yard touchdown.
Newton found Ginn along the left sideline on the next drive for a 74-yard touchdown strike. Ginn, who has struggled with dropped passes, made an over-the-head grab despite pass interference on Robert Alford and raced the final 40 yards to the end zone for the 14-point lead.
Newton went back to the air on the next drive, finding Ginn for a 46-yard TD pass over the middle behind the Falcons’ defense. The rout was on.
Ginn has a career-high eight touchdowns on the season, including four in the last two weeks and six in four games against NFC South teams.
“Don’t ease up on the gas,” Newton said. “… We want to be considered finishers.”
The Falcons couldn’t get anything going as Freeman was held to 40 yards on 11 carries. Atlanta’s longest pass play of the game went for 14 yards.
NOTES: Kawann Short broke Kris Jenkins’ record for most sacks (nine) in a single-season by a defensive tackle with two sacks on Ryan, both of which resulted in fumbles, one for a turnover. … Panthers S Kurt Coleman intercepted his seventh pass of the season, moving him into a tie for the league lead.