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What could have been? Two spark plays vs. Atlanta were there for the taking

CHARLOTTE – Luke Kuechly was talking about his inability to break up the deep ball to Julio Jones, but his message applies to everyone in the Carolina locker room.

"Stuff just doesn't happen for you. You can't expect it to happen for you. Everyone playing on the field is too good to expect stuff to happen," Kuechly said. "We have to make the play. That's the key word. Make the play. You can't hope for something to happen."

Before Sunday's game against Atlanta got out of hand, the Panthers were actually in position to take the upper hand.

"We had a couple chances for some spark plays at the beginning of the game," tight end Greg Olsen said. "They were there, we just didn't make them."

Two moments stand out in particular when it was a 3-0 game in the first quarter.

On third-and-5 from the Carolina 35-yard line, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan looked left and tried to connect with wide receiver Justin Hardy on an out route. Defensive lineman Efe Obada pushed the pocket, forcing Ryan to throw without stepping into it. Linebacker Shaq Thompson was in perfect position and made a terrific break on the ball, but he couldn't secure it. If he makes that pick, there's nothing but green grass in front of him for a touchdown, which would have given Carolina the lead.

Thompson's reaction immediately after said it all.

"When you have an opportunity to make a big play you hope we can do it," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It really does help and impact the game."

"We had a guy have an opportunity to make a big play on the offensive side," Rivera added. "Didn't do it."

Rivera was likely referring to the third play of Carolina's ensuing drive. On first-and-10, quarterback Kyle Allen tossed a beautiful ball down the right seam to a wide open Reggie Bonnafon – the running back who had lined up as a wide receiver just behind Olsen.

It was a well-designed play that achieved the desired outcome – except for the fact that Bonnafon dropped it with Falcons safety Damontae Kazee bearing down on him.

Carolina punted the ball three plays later and that's when former Panther Kenjon Barner returned it 78 yards for a game-changing touchdown.

"When the plays are there to be made," Rivera said, "we've got to make 'em."

What's going on with Burns?

First-round pick Brian Burns played 11 snaps against Green Bay and Rivera acknowledged the wrist injury has been a struggle to fight through at times for the edge rusher.

Burns played 16 snaps against the Falcons, and was actually Carolina's highest rated defensive player in that game (90.0) according to Pro Football Focus.

He said it "felt great" to get home for a strip-sack on Matt Ryan when Atlanta went for two in the third quarter and Burns beat left tackle Jake Matthews with a chop move to turn the corner with speed. Burns recorded 4.5 sacks in the first six weeks of the season and hasn't had one since. He had a minor procedure done on his right wrist during the bye week and has had to wear protective equipment -- first a club, now a smaller cast -- in the games since.

"It's hard to get into a rhythm playing a snap here or a snap there. It's about getting into your groove," Burns said. "When you're a pass rusher you have to set up your rush. You can't just come in for one third down and then two series later coming in for another third down – it's going to be an entirely new set."

That said, Burns noted that he was "around (Ryan) all game" and impacted the game off the edge.

"He had his moments, he really did," Rivera said. "There were a couple we thought were really good rushes, a couple of them he stalled on, and I think part of it is just still he's not quite there really being able to counter with his right arm. That's why he's limited, but he did have a couple flashes that remind you why he has the potential to be a really good player."

It's been tough on the rookie to see his playing time reduced after opening the season as a starter for injured veteran Bruce Irvin. But with Irvin healthy and with that wrist injury creating some limitations, this is the reality of the current situation for Burns, who clearly has a bright future ahead of him.

"Once you get that many snaps and you kind of get cut to where you are now, it's a little disappointing," Burns said. "But I'm just going to trust the process and keep pushing, keep pounding."

View the best photos behind-the-scenes from Carolina's Week 11 home game against Atlanta.

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