FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Ryan leans heavily on running backs
Quarterback Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, who has been without his top weapon for several games this season, has found a way to keep the offense moving in his bid to land his first most valuable player of the year award.
Although All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones returned against the Carolina Panthers, Ryan threw touchdown passes to his 12th and 13th receiver this season and used running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman to dismantle the Panthers and the claim the NFC South title.
Ryan set a franchise record with his 33rd and 34th touchdown passes of the seasons. He broke his old mark of 32, set in 2012.
"Obviously, those don't happen without a lot of people making good plays," Ryan said. "I'm lucky to be surrounded by a lot of really good players."
Ryan will need to be on point again when the Falcons close out the Georgia Dome against the New Orleans Saints, with a chance to earn the No. 2 seed and a coveted bye for the NFC playoffs.
Ryan needed a third-and-21 conversion to help hold back the Panthers.
"Obviously, you don't want to be in that position, but we had a great play at the time," Ryan said. "Our offensive line made the play. In order for something like that to work, you have to protect for a long time, and our O-line did a great job on that third-and-21.
"I thought that was a huge play in terms of changing the momentum in the fourth quarter. Tevin (Coleman) did a great job. He was patient was his route and got vertical as soon as he caught it, and it was a huge conversion for us."
On the next play, Coleman busted off right tackle for a 55-yard touchdown run.
"It was definitely like boom-boom," an animated Coleman said. "The offensive line made great blocks and (fullback Patrick) DiMarco made a great block for me to explode through the hole."
Coleman and Freeman entered the game as the most prolific scoring running back tandem in the league with 17 rushing touchdowns. Coleman's score was their 18th.
"It's amazing and it feels real good because me and Devonta work real hard to do things like that," Coleman said. "This defense is an amazing defense to run the ball. We are real excited that we got some yards on the ground against them."
The Falcons' tandem has combined to rush for 1,459 yards and 18 touchdowns. They have caught 77 passes for 787 yards and four touchdowns.
Freeman and Coleman finished with 221 total yards two games ago against the 49ers. They combined for 233 yards against the Panthers.
It was the fourth time this season the two have combined for 200-plus yards in a game.
"It's awesome," Ryan said. "We've got two of the best in the league, and those guys compete and play really, really hard week in and week out. They do it all.
"They run the ball for us. They catch the ball out of the backfield. They pass protect. Everything you ask them to do, they do. They are one of the most important reasons why we have had success this year."
REPORT CARD VS. Panthers
PASSING OFFENSE: A-minus -- Matt Ryan completed 27 of 33 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns. He had a passer rating of 121.8. His 26-yard touchdown pass to Perkins set the new franchise mark for most touchdown passes in a season. It was his 33rd touchdown pass of the season breaking his old mark of 32 set in 2012. All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones made his return after missing the last two games with a sprained toe. He caught a pass on the first play of the game, but only had four catches for 60 yards. Tight end Joshua Perkins, who made the team as an undrafted free agent from Washington, caught his first career touchdown pass on the opening drive. He ran a nice route and caught the ball between cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Thomas Davis for the score. D.J. Tialevea, who has been on the practice squad, was activated to the 53-man roster on Thursday. He caught a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Tight end Levine Toilolo also had a catch for 10 yards. The offensive line gave up four sacks and nine quarterback hits. That's too many.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B -- Tevin Coleman, who had 90 yards rushing on nine carries and caught three passes for 45 yards, and Freeman, who had 53 yards rushing on 13 carries and caught eight passes for 35 yards, combined for 223 total yards. It was the fourth time this season the two combined for more than 200 yards from scrimmage. Coleman's 55-yard touchdown run was the tandem's 18th score of the season, the most of any running back tandem in the league. The offensive line helped to power the rushing attack, which averaged 6.3 yards per carry as the Falcons rushed for 152 yards on 25 carries. Left guard Andy Levitre left the game with a hip injury and was replaced by Ben Garland.
PASS DEFENSE: B -- The defensive line had two sacks and five quarterbacks hits. Ra'Shede Hageman has a sack for the second week in a row and Brooks Reed and Courtney Upshaw split a sack. Falcons cornerback Brian Poole and Jalen Collins both had interceptions in the first half. Poole's came on Carolina's first possession and the Falcons turned the pick into a 51-yard field goal. With 1:40 left in the second period, Collins came up with his first career interception and returned it 37 yards to Carolina's 21. The Falcons stalled and Bryant attempted a 33-yard field, but it was blocked with 13 seconds left. Collins was beaten by Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for a 26-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the third quarter to pull the Panthers within 23-13. Safety Keanu Neal, the team's leading tackler, left the game with an ankle injury. He returned but appeared to be gimpy after a few tackles. "Our front has been killing it," Collins said. "Vic (Beasley), AC (Adrian Clayborn) and all the rest of the guys upfront have been killing it and making it easier for us in the back."
RUSH DEFENSE: B -- The defensive line sold out to stop the run and Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart. They contested their blocks and didn't give up any ground. That allowed the linebackers, especially Deion Jones, to clean up in the run game. Because of the work of the defensive line, the Falcons held the dangerous Stewart to 50 yards on 11 carries. Jones led the team with 13 tackles and nearly had an interception. Paul Worrilow had four tackles and Vic Beasley had two tackles.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-plus -- Falcons kicker Matt Bryant, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday, made field goals of 51 and 48 yards, but had a 33-yard attempt blocked right before the half by Carolina's Vernon Butler. Bryant added a 29-yard field in the third quarter and a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter for the final score. The kickoff coverage team gave up a 47-yard return to Fozzy Whitaker. He averaged 42 yards on two returns. Matt Bosher had six touchbacks on kickoffs.
COACHING: A-minus -- The Falcons, who have posted three straight victories over the Panthers, were ready to play. But the stalls in the red-zone kept them from receiving an A-plus. In the playoffs, 33 percent in the red zone is sub-standard. Also, the coverage units must step up their game in the regular-season finale heading into the playoffs.