ATLANTA — Rashaan Evans shook his head, almost still in disbelief. In some ways it still has has been in disbelief.
The Atlanta Falcons linebacker has been playing football for a long time — five years in the NFL, four in Alabama and high school before that. What happened on Sunday, he had never experienced it.
After an upside-down game that saw six scores in the final quarter and then overtime — not to mention a critical missed extra point and a missed field goal — in an eventual Falcons 37-34 victory over the Panthers of Carolina, Evans said he was physically and mentally exhausted. And in first place in the NFC South – the only team (4-4) in the division to be .500 or better.
“I’m going to sleep for about three days,” Evans said. “For real.”
He will, however, sleep happily.
The Falcons apparently won that game, then lost, then won again. Twice.
In regulation, Atlanta held a six-point lead (34-28) after a basket from Younghoe Koo with 36 seconds left. Carolina quarterback PJ Walker then hit receiver DJ Moore with a 62-yard Hail Mary for a touchdown with 12 seconds left that appeared to give the Panthers the win. The balloon traveled 67.6 meters in the air, according to Next Gen Stats, the longest air distance achieved since it began tracking air meters in 2016.
Both Evans and safety Dean Marlowe were on game coverage. Marlowe told ESPN after the game that he was playing on the sidelines to keep Moore in bounds because Carolina had no timeout and 23 seconds when the game has started. An inbounds tackle would probably have won the game.
Marlowe didn’t see Walker scrambling and when he saw him come out of the box, he didn’t think the QB would throw the ball.
“Not a soul in my body thought he would throw it,” Marlowe said.
Marlowe added that he didn’t even see the ball in the air. He was defending Moore and then saw the receiver appear to be preparing in anticipation. Evans didn’t see Moore’s touchdown until he heard the screams inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He was facing the Panthers bench and saw them running around celebrating – the first level of disbelief in a late game of a game full of them.
Moore had barely beaten them both – he was 0.8m apart when he caught the ball – sending the fans into a combination of shock and hysteria.
“I’m like, ‘Did he just catch this?'” he said. “So I feel in my head, there’s no way we just lost this game like this.”
Then Moore removed his helmet, triggering an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. It was the first such penalty in the final two minutes of a game this season, according to ESPN stats. & Information.
“It was a natural reaction,” Moore said. “Still, I know I can’t do this.”
It forced the Falcons to make a decision: push Carolina kicker Eddy Pineiro 15 yards out on the extra run try or go the distance at kickoff. Coach Arthur Smith and Special Teams Coordinator Marquice Williams briefly discussed both strategies and opted for the former. And it worked.
Pineiro missed the extra point from 47 yards left and the game went into overtime.
“It was one of those decisions that you get paid for,” Smith said.
In overtime, Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota was picked off by CJ Henderson on Atlanta’s first possession, and he returned it 54 yards to Atlanta’s 26. The Panthers arrived at Atlanta’s 14 and Pineiro came out to attempt a 32-yard field goal. Again, the Falcons thought they were in trouble. Smith called a timeout to try to freeze the kicker.
“It’s the only thing you have left in your pocket,” Smith said. “You come down with everything you’ve got. That’s the only analogy I can give.”
What Smith called “the last available tactic” worked. Pineiro pushed the attempt down the left, bringing the Falcons back to life.
“I just missed the kick,” Pineiro said.
Atlanta then raced down the field, highlighted by a 30-yard run from Mariota, who turned 29 on Sunday, to set up a 41-yard field goal from Koo to win the game. Falcons players swarmed onto the field surrounding their kicker, one of the highest paid in the NFL.
“Honestly, for me, it’s sticking to what we do every day,” Koo said. “Stick to the process. We work on it every week. Every day.”
It ended a wild and somewhat unlikely game in what has been a somewhat unlikely season for the Falcons, who sit in the No. 1 spot despite not having topped .500 at any time this season. In fact, they haven’t topped .500 at all since the end of the 2017 season.
The last time the Falcons held the top spot in the division this late in the year was in 2016, the last year the team made it to the Super Bowl. And it all came from a game so wild that almost no Falcon had experienced anything like it.
“It was crazy,” Falcons safety Richie Grant said. “I’ve never been a part of anything like this. I’m just happy to be on the safe side.”
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