CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Atlanta Falcons had a 90% chance of winning on Thursday night with an eight-point lead when the Carolina Panthers took the field for their final possession with less than three minutes remaining.
Sound like a familiar situation?
Most, if not all, of those who have followed Atlanta’s woes probably had one of those “here we go again" moments, expecting the Falcons to blow this one as they had three other games where the odds were stacked heavily in their favor.
Instead, Atlanta got an interception from cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson to give interim coach Raheem Morris his second win in in three games since Dan Quinn was fired after a Week 5 loss to Carolina.
Had running back Todd Gurley been able to stop short of the goal line with 1:04 left against Detroit five days earlier, giving the Lions time left to rally, the Falcons might be 3-0 under Morris.
“I feel like this team jumped off the page tonight and was ready to go," Morris said.
The Falcons, 2-6, won’t jump off the page in terms of suddenly becoming a playoff contender. But they are showing that with an improvement on defense and ability to finish games that they could be a tough out for anybody on their schedule the second half of the season.
“I always believe in the defense," wide receiver Julio Jones said. “We are together. We work together. Those are our brothers on the other side that we can’t be on the field with, but we have to put the trust in them."
You can take that with a grain of salt. The Falcons entered the game with the fifth-worst defense in the NFL and didn’t look great in the first half against Carolina when they gave up two touchdowns.
Finally having Jones healthy -- seven catches, 137 yards -- will scare upcoming opponents more than the defense.
But it’s apparent since Morris was elevated from defensive coordinator to interim head coach that the defense is playing better, which is somewhat ironic since it was his unit’s collapses that helped cost Quinn his job.
“They played like a team that had their backs against the wall and didn’t want to lose anymore," Carolina coach Matt Rhule said. “They played hard, ran to the ball. They played with such physicality."
Statistically, the Falcons are surrendering the same number of yards per play -- 6.56 in the first five games, 6.55 the past three -- under Morris as they did under Quinn.
But everywhere else they’ve shown marked improvement. They’ve gone from giving up 32.2 points a game to 21, their opponent’s Total Quarterback Rating has dropped from 82.6 to 49.6, their sack rate has increased from 3.4% to 6.1% and opponents’ third-down conversion has dropped from 43.3% to 26.7.
Granted, Teddy Bridgewater (Carolina), Matt Stafford (Detroit) and Kirk Cousins (Minnesota) aren’t on the same level as Russell Wilson (Seattle), Dak Prescott (Dallas) and Aaron Rodgers (Green Bay) -- quarterbacks Atlanta lost to in the first five games.
They’re not even close.
But at least the defense, if for only a game, flipped the narrative that it couldn’t finish off an opponent. Whether or not that will get Morris, the head coach at Tampa Bay from 2009-11, a shot at permanently replacing Quinn remains to be seen.
He’s probably as much of a long shot for that job as the Falcons are to make the playoffs.
But his team, particularly on defense, appears to be playing hard for him in a season where they easily could have given up.
“We knew it was going to come down to us," linebacker Foye Oluokun said. “It was our turn to win the game."