LOS ANGELES: The Carolina Panthers’ pursuit of a perfect NFL season ended on Sunday (Monday in Manila) with a stunning 20-13 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta.
In the penultimate week of the regular season the Panthers were aiming to move to 15-0, but the Falcons—routed 38-0 by the Panthers on December 12—had other ideas.
Julio Jones leapt over two defenders to reel in a spectacular 70-yard touchdown catch and rookie Vic Beasley sealed the triumph by forcing a fumble from Panthers quarter¬back Cam Newton in the final minute that the Falcons recovered.
“They may have taken us lightly, but we didn’t take them lightly,” Beasley said.
Newton had two chances to lead comeback drives late in the fourth quarter but couldn’t find the end zone.
“This is part of the journey,” said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “We have to refocus. But we’ve accomplished a lot. Let’s not lose sight of that.”
The 2007 New England Patriots remain the only NFL team to post a 16-0 regular season.
After riding roughshod over the league that year, the Patriots were stunned in the Super Bowl by the New York Giants.
The 1972 Miami Dolphins are the only team to record a perfect championship season—going 14-0 in the regular season before winning three playoff games that included a Super Bowl triumph.
“I think we were just purely outplayed today,” said the Panthers’ Roman Harper. “And we couldn’t come out there and win at the end. That’s all we’ve done is find ways to win all year and we couldn’t do that today.”
The play of the game was Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s deep throw to Jones, who went airborne to beat linebacker Luke Kuechly then raced into the end zone.
“Just how we drew it up,” quipped Falcons coach Dan Quinn, whose team nevertheless saw their slim playoff hopes extinguished hours later when the Minnesota Vikings beat the New York Giants 49-17.
The Vikings clinched a playoff berth, and will battle the Green Bay Packers next week for the NFC North division title.
Chiefs, Cardinals roll
The Kansas City Chiefs continued their remarkable turnaround from a 1-5 start, posting their ninth straight victory and securing a playoff berth with a 17-13 triumph over the Cleveland Browns.
The Chiefs’ path to the American Football Conference playoffs was aided when the Baltimore Ravens upset the Pittsburgh Steelers 20-17, ensuring a wildcard berth would go to the Chiefs.
“We were 1-5 at one point, so we appreciate every one of these things,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It’s tough to string a bunch of (wins) together in the National Football League.”
The Ravens’ victory also meant the Cincinnati Bengals, who face the Broncos in Denver on Monday, clinched the AFC North division title.
The Arizona Cardinals also won their ninth straight, humbling the Green Bay Packers 38-8 to secure a first-round playoff bye. The Cardinals could still grab the top seed in the NFC from the Panthers, if they beat Seattle next week and the Panthers fall at Tampa Bay.
Jets hold off Pats
The New York Jets maintained control of their playoff destiny with a dramatic 26-20 overtime victory over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Brady’s nine-yard touchdown pass to running back James White with 1:55 left in regulation saw the Patriots pull level after trailing by 14 points in the second half.
When overtime began, the Patriots won the toss but special teams captain Matthew Slater elected to kick off rather than receive the ball.
The move raised eyebrows, although Pats coach Bill Belichick insisted that was indeed his intention.
Less than three minutes into overtime, Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick connected on a six-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker to give the Jets a win and if they beat Buffalo next week they will play in the post-season.
The Houston Texans edged closer to the AFC South division title with a 34-6 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
But division rivals Indianapolis kept their longshot hopes alive with an 18-12 win over the Miami Dolphins.