ATLANTA — Rashaan Evans was almost still shaking his head in disbelief. In a way he still is was incredulous.
The Atlanta Falcons linebacker has been a longtime football player – five years in the NFL, before that four in Alabama and in high school. He had never experienced what happened on Sunday.
After an upside-down game that included six goals in the last quarter and then overtime — not to mention a critical missed extra point and a missed field goal — in a Falcons 37-34 win over the Carolina Panthers, said Evans said he was physically and mentally drained. And in first place in the NFC South — the only team (4-4) in the division to rank .500 or better.
“I’ll sleep for about three days,” Evans said. “For real.”
But he will sleep happily.
The Falcons had apparently won that game and then lost and then won it again. Twice.
Typically, Atlanta held a six-point lead (34-28) after a field goal by Younghoe Koo had 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 seemed to give the Panthers the win. The ball flew 67.6 yards in the air, the longest flight distance since tracking air yards began in 2016, according to Next Gen Stats.
Both Evans and Safety Dean Marlowe covered the play. Marlowe told ESPN after the game he was playing on the touchline to keep Moore inbound because Carolina had no timeouts and 23 seconds early in the game. A tackle inbounds would have probably won the game.
Marlowe didn’t see Walker climb and when he saw him out of the box he didn’t think the QB was going to throw the ball.
“Not a soul in my body thought he was going to throw it,” Marlowe said.
Marlowe added that he didn’t even see the ball in the air. He defended Moore and then saw the receiver brace himself expectantly. Evans didn’t see Moore’s touchdown catch until he heard the screams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He stood in front of the Panthers’ bench and watched them walk around cheering – the first level of disbelief in a final part of a game that was full of them.
Moore had barely batted both of them – he was 0.8 meters apart when he caught the ball – sending fans into a combination of shock and hysteria.
“I’m like, ‘Did he just get that?'” he said. “So I feel in my head, there’s no way we lost that game like that.”
Moore then 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’s Stats & Information research.
“It was a natural reaction,” Moore said. “Even so, I know I can’t.”
It forced the Falcons to make a decision: push Carolina kicker Eddy Pineiro back 15 yards on an extra point attempt or take the yardage on kickoff. Coach Arthur Smith and special teams coordinator Marquice Williams briefly discussed the two strategies and settled on the former. And it worked.
Pineiro missed the 47-yard extra point wide left and the game went OT.
“It was one of those decisions you get paid to make,” 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 the Atlanta 26. The Panthers made the Atlanta 14, and Pineiro came out to attempt a 32-yard field goal. Again the hawks thought they were in trouble. Smith called a timeout to freeze the kicker.
“It’s the only thing you have left in your bag,” Smith said. “You go down with everything you have. That’s the only analogy I can give.”
What Smith called “the last available tactic” worked. Pineiro pushed the attempt wide to the left and gave life back to the Falcons.
“I just missed the kick,” said Pineiro.
Atlanta then drove down the field, highlighted by a 30-yard run from Mariota, who turned 29 on Sunday, to set up a 41-yard koo field goal to win the game. Falcons players flocked to the field for their kicker, one of the highest paid in the NFL.
“Honestly, for me, it’s just sticking with what we do every day,” Koo said. “We stick to the process. We work on it every week. Every day.”
It ended up being a wild, somewhat unlikely game in a somewhat unlikely season for the Falcons, who are ranked first despite not being over .500 at any point this season. In fact, they haven’t been above .500 at all since the end of the 2017 season.
The last time the Falcons finished first in the division this late in the year was 2016, the last year the team reached the Super Bowl. And it all came from a game so wild that few hawks had experienced anything like it.
“That was crazy,” said Falcons safety Richie Grant. “I’ve never been a part of anything like this. I’m just happy to be on the good side.”
https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/34912590/koo-hits-41-yd-fg-ot-give-falcons-ot-win-panthers First-place Falcons marvel at wild OT win against Panthers