CHARLOTTE – One step forward. Two steps back.
That's what it felt like all day for Carolina against the division-rival Falcons.
"Yeah," running back Christian McCaffrey said, "that's a good way to put it."
And in a literal sense, that's exactly what has happened since that blowout loss at San Francisco snapped a four-game win streak. The Panthers took an important step forward with a win over the Titans. Then came a tough loss in the snow at Green Bay before Sunday's 29-3 defeat suffered at the hands of Atlanta at home, the toughest setback yet, as Carolina dropped to 5-5 on the season.
The Panthers have now lost seven of their last eight games against the Falcons.
"It's extremely frustrating," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "Division game. At home. You never want to drop those."
Despite their opponent's 2-7 record entering the week, the Panthers knew not to expect the Falcons to roll over. They knew they were going to be tested by a team that had just earned a decisive win in New Orleans against the division-leading Saints.
And tested they were.
Former MVP quarterback Matt Ryan threw for 311 yards with no picks and was in total command for much of the afternoon as he avoided the rush and found open targets downfield.
"He's a rhythm guy. He got in a rhythm. That's what he can do to you," McCoy said. "Too many explosive plays."
Carolina, on the other hand, never found its rhythm offensively.
"Every single series there was either a penalty, drop, turnover," a visibly frustrated Greg Olsen said. "There was something on every drive. It's impossible to play football like that."
Quarterback Kyle Allen tossed four interceptions, was sacked five times and the Panthers were penalized eight times for 68 yards. Carolina finished just 2-of-14 on third downs.
"Just a comedy of terrible football," Olsen said. "It just snowballed. It's tough. We all had our fair share. When you have a game that bad offensively where we scored three points, any guy who stepped on the field shares in that blame. To score three points at home – it's pretty bad."
It's not as though the Panthers didn't have their chances early on. Running back Reggie Bonnafon dropped what would have been a chunk play down the seam. Linebacker Shaq Thompson couldn't corral a pass that had the looks of a pick-six.
Carolina's defense, despite being forced to defend several short fields, forced Atlanta to settle for three field goal attempts in the first half, which kept the score manageable.
"We had our shots early," Olsen said, "and then the game spiraled on us."
The Falcons extended their lead as the game wore on and the Panthers were beaten into submission.
Now they're .500 entering Week 12, three games behind the Saints in the NFC South after New Orleans beat Tampa Bay to become 8-2. And a wild card spot is a little further out of reach with the Vikings improving to 8-3.
Next on the schedule? The Saints. In New Orleans.
"You got to keep playing," Olsen said. "You can just play back what I said to you guys after the 49ers game. No one feels sorry for you. Next week New Orleans is going to try to kill us. That's the way it goes."
"We can only control what we can control," guard Greg Van Roten said. "If we need help, we need help, but we have to win to even be in the conversation, so it doesn't matter if you lose the next game or you lose the sixth game. We've got to win this game coming up next. That's what we have to do."
That's the only option.
"Our job is to move on to New Orleans," McCaffrey said. "The season is not over. We're not going to act like it's over. We'll fix our mistakes and move on."
View photos from Week 11 as Carolina hosts Atlanta.