Panthers back to playing like a rebuilding team in loss to Falcons

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- After a surprising start, the Carolina Panthers are looking like the young, inexperienced team they were predicted to be entering the NFL season instead of the potential playoff contender they appeared to be after three consecutive victories.

Thursday night’s 25-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium was Carolina’s third straight as it enters the toughest part of the schedule, with games against Kansas City (6-1) and Tampa Bay (5-2) up next.

The Panthers (3-5) couldn’t beat an Atlanta team that couldn’t beat anybody -- the Falcons lost six of their first seven games. Atlanta was 1-3 when holding a fourth-quarter lead entering the game and in a state of flux after firing coach Dan Quinn after a Week 5 loss to Carolina.

If coach Matt Rhule’s team couldn’t beat the Falcons (2-6) at home, then it can’t expect to compete with the elite teams in the NFC.

This one was filled with issues that have been building in the past few weeks, such as the inability to stop an opponent on key third-down situations and the ability to convert key third-down situations on offense.

It was filled with costly penalties, such as a defensive holding call that negated a Brian Burns third-down sack midway through the fourth quarter.

Carolina’s last chance to pull even ended with a Teddy Bridgewater interception into triple coverage that had no chance to be completed, and it almost seemed fitting.

Rhule’s favorite saying is “What’s next!" --- as in what’s the next challenge.

This is starting to feel like “What’s next for next season."

QB breakdown: Bridgewater was not at his best as the Falcons loaded the box and dared him to beat them. He was knocked out of the game for a while in the second half after a vicious hit for which Atlanta’s Charles Harris was ejected, but he never was as efficient or effective as he’s been in past weeks. He completed 15 of 23 pass attempts for 176 yards and one touchdown against one of the worst defenses in the NFL.

Sell on a breakout performance: Curtis Samuel had a rushing and receiving touchdown as he continued to play running back and wide receiver with Christian McCaffrey out. But with McCaffrey expected back next week, Samuel’s touches as a back definitely will decline and his receptions could, too. McCaffrey has led the team in receptions the past two seasons.

Silver lining: The Panthers now have more than a week to get McCaffrey (high ankle sprain) back from injured reserve and ready for the defending Super Bowl champions.

Pivotal plays: Carolina’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 34 with a 14-13 lead in the second quarter wasn't necessarily a bad decision, but the playcall was. Instead of handing off to running back Mike Davis, Bridgewater kept the ball and was thrown for a loss around the right side. Then in the third quarter, Bridgewater gave the ball to Davis on fourth-and-1 at the Atlanta 42, and he was stuffed for a loss. Carolina had been successful on 4 of 6 fourth-and-1 runs coming into the game, but went 0-for-2 on Thursday.