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Falcons' win painful for Mike Smith, Panthers

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At halftime of the Falcons-Panthers game Sunday, with Carolina ahead by 16 and in Green Bay Packers mode, here is what you were thinking: Atlanta is no playoff team. It might slip into the postseason but is destined for a cameo appearance.

After the Falcons threw an amazing shutout in their finest half of the season for a 31-23 win, here is what you were thinking: This is no Super Bowl team, but maybe it can stick around for a week in the tournament.

The bleakest moment during the game -- in contrast to following it, when coach Mike Smith had to be hospitalized -- was Roddy White limping off the field in the second quarter with the Falcons needing a boatload of points. He returned, but Matt Ryan relied on rookies tall and short, Julio Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers, for three second-half touchdowns.

Atlanta was blessed to be looking across the line of scrimmage at a young, vulnerable team subject to swings. The Panthers' renowned rookie, Cameron Newton, was picked twice during the rally. The Falcons went turnover-free, which customarily comes with a guarantee of victory.

A grand day could have gone better. Minutes after Ryan's multiple kneel-downs, the Saints and the Lions held on for wins with the backs of their defenses brushing against the goal line.

But they will take a comeback from 16 down, no questions asked, which puts them in the proper frame of mind for a short work week and a Thursday home game with the Jaguars.

Whether they will have Smith game-planning is uncertain. He was treated in Charlotte post-game for chest pains, then returned home late Sunday.

Just another challenge in a season full of them.

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