It has been a disappointing and, at times, embarrassing season so far for the Atlanta Falcons, but quarterback Matt Ryan wants to think that Thursday's victory at Carolina could be the spark for yet another second-half surge.
The Falcons held on to a fourth-quarter lead for just the second time in five games in 2020 thanks to a Todd Gurley touchdown run and an interception by Blidi Wreh-Wilson and beat the Panthers 25-17 at Bank of America Stadium.
"I hope it's the start of something," Ryan said. "I really feel like, although we're 2-6, I feel like we've been in some tight ones. We've played some good football. I think we can play some really tough football here in the second half of the season."
The Falcons did that in 2019, following a 1-7 start with a 6-2 finish that included victories in the final four games. Can they repeat that over the next two months?
It won't be easy. They have a winnable game against Denver next weekend, but after their bye they play New Orleans twice in a three-week span. Then there are two games against Tampa Bay and one against Kansas City, as well, in addition to games against the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers. The Broncos and Chargers are the only opponents remaining with losing records.
"We've been in every game we've played this year," Ryan said. "We've had some crazy losses, just to be frank, and I really believe that we've got the caliber of team to go be in the games we're going to play the rest of the season.
"Why can't we win them all? That's the mindset that I have."
The way the Falcons beat the Panthers gives Ryan hope. They overcame a 2-for-6 performance in the red zone and the loss of leading receiver Calvin Ridley to an ankle injury. The Falcons held a 13-minute advantage in time of possession, totaled 401 yards, held the Panthers to 2-of-10 on third down and sacked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater three times.
Ryan also pitched in with a 13-yard touchdown run, the longest of his career, to become just the third quarterback in franchise history to have double-digit rushing touchdowns. He trails only Michael Vick (21) and Steve Bartkowski (11).
Thursday was just the second time this season that the Falcons won a game in which they entered the fourth quarter with a lead. They had been 1-3 in that situation, including last weekend's loss to Detroit on the game's final play. The Falcons led the Lions 14-13 in the fourth quarter, but Gurley's touchdown run left Detroit with too much time and Matthew Stafford's TD pass to T.J. Hockenson gave the Lions a 23-22 victory.
That was just the latest -- and most painful -- fourth-quarter flop. The Falcons blew a five-point lead in Week 2 in a 40-39 loss to Dallas and a 16-point lead in Week 3 to Chicago.
Until the victory over the Panthers, the Falcons' only hold on a fourth-quarter lead was Oct. 18 at Minnesota.
"It just felt like it was going to be a different night," Ryan said. "Our defense stepped up and did a great job making plays. I'm happy for them. To come through in that type of situation, that's a confidence builder for us moving forward."
And, Ryan hopes, the start of another second-half rally.