ATLANTA — They came streaming off the sideline and surrounded Younghoe Koo. After a wild, somewhat improbable game Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the reliable Atlanta Falcons kicker did what the franchise had made him one of the NFL’s highest-paid kickers to do.
Koo made a 41-yard field goal in overtime to give Atlanta a 37-34 win over the Carolina Panthers, helping the franchise to a one-game lead in the NFC South where only the Falcons are at .500. Everyone else is below.
This game, well, the Falcons had this won and then lost and then won again. Twice.
In regulation, Atlanta held a six-point lead after a Koo field goal with 36 seconds left set the score at 34-28. Then a 62-yard Hail Mary touchdown from Carolina quarterback PJ Walker to receiver DJ Moore with 12 seconds left appeared to give the Panthers the win.
But Moore removed his helmet, leading to an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, pushing the extra point attempt back 15 yards. Carolina kicker Eddy Pineiro missed the longer attempt, keeping the score 34-34 and sending the game to overtime.
In overtime, the Falcons got the ball, but then quarterback Marcus Mariota threw an interception to CJ Henderson that was returned 54 yards. The Panthers (2-6) were in easy field goal range for the win. But Pinero missed the 32-yard field goal, giving Atlanta (4-4) life again.
In this division this season, nothing less might have been expected than the unexpected.
Entering Week 8, there were only two other times in the four-division era — which started in 2002 — when no team in the division had been .500 or better: the 2020 NFC East and 2015 AFC South. That’s not an issue for the NFC South for now, as the Falcons are at .500.
Atlanta is in first place in the division despite not being over .500 at any point this season. This is the latest the Falcons have been in first place in the division since 2016, the year the franchise last went to the Super Bowl.
It’s a long way from Week 1, when the Falcons blew a 16-point second-half lead, and head coach Arthur Smith had a fiery news conference in which he talked about people writing off and “burying” his team before the season started.
“We don’t care,” Smith said then. “We’ll get back to work.”
The Falcons, from that point, continued to show they believed in their second-year head coach. Up until last Sunday against Cincinnati, the Falcons had been competitive in every game they had played despite having a roster with the most dead cap money in the NFL — over $80 million, according to Roster Management System — and over $9 million in cap room left on the roster, too.
The Falcons have turned over almost their entire roster from when Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot took over in January 2021, including the jettisoning of franchise icons: quarterback Matt Ryan (traded to Indianapolis in March) and receiver Julio Jones (traded to Tennessee in 2021).
Yet for now, they are in first place in one of the most intriguing divisions in the NFL, where every team is within two games of the top of the division.