In Sunday's game the Falcons and Panthers posted similar totals in yards of offense (400-380), first downs (22-19) and time of possession (32 minutes-28 minutes). Yet the Panthers won 28-19. Why? Because, unlike they have most of this season, the Panthers made the big plays when they had to. Their opponent did not.
Carolina forced two turnovers, to none for Atlanta. And while the Panthers scored touchdowns all three times they drove into the red zone, the Falcons went just two-for-five in red zone opportunities. On one of those trips inside the 20, they did not score at all. In fact Carolina converted a second-and-15, and a third-down play in the red zone. Atlanta, meanwhile, twice failed to convert third-down plays inside the 20.
Here then is a breakdown of the game's key red zone plays, and the second turnover -- which crushed Atlanta's comeback hopes:
Situation: Panthers ball, Second-and-15, Atlanta 20. Atlanta leads 3-0. 7:03 to play in the first quarter.
Formations: Carolina lined up with one back, a receiver split on each side and a tight end on each side. Atlanta lined up in a 4-3, with an eighth defender in the box lined up over a tight end. Two corners played off the receivers a few yards.
What happened: Quarterback Jake Delhomme threw a quick hitch right to receiver Steve Smith, who deeked a corner deeked a safety and was tackled at the Atlanta 1 by linebacker 50.
How it happened: Smith was single-covered on the outside. Delhomme threw the ball to him quickly. Smith ran a buttonhook and stopped at the 15. The corner covering him backpedaled but when he saw the ball coming, he stopped and ran towards Smith. By the time Smith caught the ball, though, the corner was only at the 11. That gave Smith plenty of space to make a move to the outside, losing the corner as he cut inside.
The result: The Panthers had a first-and-goal at the 1. Running back Jonathan Stewart scored on a run on the next play.
Situation: Carolina ball, Third-and-goal, Atlanta 4. 7-3 Carolina. 12:33 to play in second quarter.
Formations: Carolina lined up with one back, three receivers (two right) and a tight end right. Atlanta used four linemen and stationed four defenders in the middle of the field, in between the line of scrimmage and goal line. Two corners were in press coverage, and one played off. The Falcons did not have a safety in the end zone.
What happened: Following Stewart's touchdown, Atlanta failed to convert a third-down play at the Carolina 39. The Falcons punted and the Panthers drove to the Atlanta 47. Then the Panthers converted a third down there.
Five plays later, facing this third-and-goal, Carolina converted again. Delhomme threw to the deep right corner of the end zone for Smith, who made the catch over corner Tye Hill for a touchdown.
How it happened: Smith lined up far right, sold a slant pass, then cut outside to beat Hill. Hill never turned around and interfered with Smith, who jumped and caught the ball anyways.
The result: Carolina led 14-3 after the extra point.
Situation: Carolina ball, Third-and-goal, Atlanta 4. 14-10 Carolina. 1:12 to play in second.
Formations: The Panthers lined up with one back, a receiver left and three receivers bunched in the right slot. Atlanta used four linemen with five other defenders in the box, and one corner in press coverage on the isolated receiver.
What happened: Delhomme threw low over the middle for Smith, who caught the pass in the end zone, in between two Atlanta defenders.
How it happened: Smith started in the right slot and waited until tight end Jeff King released in front of him. Smith then ran a shallow cross left and drew linebacker Curtis Lofton in coverage. Delhomme placed the ball in between Lofton and safety Thomas DeCoud, who arrived late.
The result: Carolina led 21-10 at the half.
Situation: Atlanta ball, Third-and-goal, Carolina 6. 21-10 Carolina. 9:34 to play in third quarter.
Formations: Atlanta lined up in the shotgun with three receivers bunched in the right slot, one receiver left and one back. Carolina used three linemen with four other defenders in the box, a corner in press coverage and a safety at the goal line.
What happened: Corner Richard Marshall broke up a pass from Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan at the goal line.
How it happened: Two receivers released inside from the right slot. Tight end Tony Gonzalez, also in that slot, waited for them to go and then flared outside right. Marshall covered Gonzalez, who suddenly spun inside and looked for the ball. But Marshall was in great position, jumped the route and nearly intercepted the pass.
The result: Atlanta settled for a field goal on the next play and still trailed by eight.
Situation: Atlanta ball, Third-and-1, Carolina 16. 21-19 Carolina. 6:45 to play in fourth quarter.
Formations: Atlanta lined up with one back, one receiver split on each side, and one tight end on each side. Carolina used three linemen with four other defenders in the box, two corners playing off and two safeties deep.
What happened: Ryan was stuffed for no gain on a quarterback sneak.
How it happened: The Falcons did not huddle after the previous play, a 4-yard Ryan run. Ryan snapped the ball quickly and ran in between his center and right guard. But the Panthers got enough penetration to prevent the first down.
The result: The Falcons settled for a field goal attempt on the next play, but kicker Jason Elam badly shanked a 34-yard attempt wide left. Elam and his holder appeared to be off timing-wise.
Situation: Atlanta ball, First-and-10, midfield. 21-19 Carolina. 3:59 to play in fourth.
Formations: Atlanta lined up in I-formation with two receivers left. Carolina used four linemen, two corners playing off and a linebacker showing blitz up the middle.
What happened: Ryan threw deep over the middle for receiver Michael Jenkins but overthrew him. Marshall intercepted the pass and returned it to the Carolina 49.
How it happened: Ryan faked a handoff to tailback Jason Snelling, dropped back deep in the pocket and looked downfield. As he set to throw, defensive end Tyler Brayton hurried him from his right. Ryan did not step into the throw and it came out high for Jenkins at the 25. Marshall was in deep zone coverage and caught the errant pass at the 22.
The result: Three plays later, Stewart dashed 45 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.