ATLANTA -- You'd love to pin it on the slow-starting offense, but they came back. You'd love to point to a leaky defense, but they made a few plays, too.
Basically, all four tires fell off the Carolina Panthers early in their short trip to the Georgia Dome, never allowing them to make it to their destination.
The Panthers lost a ridiculous 45-28 decision in Atlanta on Sunday, clawing their way back from an early hole, then blowing gaskets late and collapsing in a heap.
"Every phase of our team struggled today," Panthers coach John Fox said, and that might have been the understatement of the day.
The Panthers spotted the Falcons a 17-0 lead in the second quarter and never recovered. Even when they got it back to a 24-21 deficit in the fourth quarter, the Falcons answered, delivering the knockout punch with a 69-yard pass to little-known hero Harry Douglas, which set up the third of running back Michael Turner's four touchdowns.
That one came on a fourth-and-goal from the Panthers' 1, the kind of defining play that changes the course of seasons.
"It was an easy decision in terms of having confidence in your football team," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "We had the ball down on the 1-yard line and we felt like we could punch it in. There was no other choice.
"A field goal would have only given us a six-point lead. I felt we could score a touchdown."
When the Panthers needed something, they were left looking around wondering why.
After the game, nearly everyone in the Panthers' locker room acknowledged that they themselves were the worst enemy, another slow start dooming a respectable comeback.
The one defiant voice was middle linebacker and defensive captain Jon Beason, who was hesitant to accept what he had just witnessed.
Asked if sloppy wins the last two weeks had masked some basic problems, Beason said what no one else was willing to lately, that the previous two wins should have been easier, and that this one shouldn't have gone in the other column.
"The last two weeks, we played down to the level of our competition," Beason said. "We can't, even though you win you've got to go back and look at what you can do better, and we do that.
There was nothing eye-popping about the Falcons' stat line. Turner had 117 yards to go with his four scores. Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan only had 259 yards passing and didn't throw one into the end zone.
But the cumulative effect of the Panthers' ineffectiveness was an ugly loss after a pair of ugly wins.
Every time the Panthers appeared to have a chance, they'd usually do something to actively pursue losing.
When cornerback Chris Gamble (continuing his recent run of sterling play) stripped Roddy White of a reception in the second quarter, he gave the Panthers the ball in Atlanta territory.
They actually drove to the shadow of the goal line, but a false start penalty by rookie tackle Jeff Otah and an air-mailed pass by Delhomme (over a wide open Steve Smith in the back of the end zone), left them to settle for a field goal. They carried that 17-3 deficit into the half, after a promising-looking two-minute drive unraveled with a false start penalty by Muhsin Muhammad and one of the three sacks of Delhomme, this one by John Abraham.
The Panthers had no yards in the first quarter, and just 99 by the break. Their initial first down didn't come until 8:56 of the second quarter.
"We need to start faster," Delhomme said. "We need to have that edge, that sense of urgency when we come out. For some reason the last couple of weeks it was slow. And we need to get it because it doesn't get any easier. We have to travel to play next week against a tough football team (Green Bay), and we need to start a whole lot faster than the last two weeks."
It looked in the third and early in the fourth like it was going to turn their way, as the local crowd seemed confused when the Panthers scrapped back. But the Douglas play dashed all the Panthers hopes and sparked this oft-quiet building into a frenzy, leaving the Panthers nothing else to do but ponder how to fix it.
"We can't continue to keep starting slow against good teams," running back DeAngelo Williams said. "The end result would be us losing if we continue to do that. But I don't think we will have any problems starting fast next week.
The NFC South's now wide open again, with three teams clumped within a game and the Falcons feeling in it again.
Tampa Bay (8-3) moved back into a tie for the division lead with a 38-20 win over Detroit, with both the Panthers and Bucs a game clear of Atlanta (7-4).