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Sunday, December 29, 2013
Rapid Reaction: Atlanta Falcons

By Vaughn McClure

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons' 21-20 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

What it means: A miserable season finally ended, although the Falcons went down swinging. A team that finished 13-3 a year ago and was within one game of the Super Bowl suddenly plummeted to 4-12. At least the Falcons will have a high draft pick in order to address noticeable weaknesses along the offensive and defensive lines. They entered Sunday sixth in the draft order.

End of an era: Sunday marked the final game in the illustrious career of Tony Gonzalez. The Falcons tight end caught a pass to open the game, closing his career with 211 consecutive games with a catch. The Falcons sent Gonzalez out as the only captain for the coin toss, and they honored him with a special video-board tribute and presentation at halftime. The 37-year-old Gonzalez will leave as the best tight end to play the game. Panthers receiver Steve Smith said it best pregame: "Is he a guy who has changed the game? Absolutely."

Stock watch: The stock of the offensive line, as a group, continued to fall, as it allowed quarterback Matt Ryan to get beat up the entire day. The line's inability to block contributed to Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy setting a franchise record with four sacks. And every member of the offensive line had issues, from steady left guard Justin Blalock to surprising center Joe Hawley to struggling left tackle Lamar Holmes. Ryan got sacked a season-high nine times and appeared to be hobbled after each one. The Falcons probably should have pulled Ryan in favor of Dominique Davis, based on the beating Ryan absorbed. It emphasized how much the Falcons need to address the offensive line in the offseason either via free agency or through the draft.

Dropping the ball: Roddy White stepped up his game late in the season, as he finally recovered from some early injuries. But White would be the first to say he took a step back after dropping at least three passes on Sunday. It was an uncharacteristic performance for the sure-handed White.

What's next: The Falcons will go through their evaluations this week to figure out what type of coaching and personnel changes are needed going into next season. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a change at defensive coordinator, although Mike Nolan has tried to do the best with the group he has. Offensive line coach Pat Hill might be under fire, too, although he doesn't have much to work with, either. Whatever happens in the coming weeks, the Falcons have significant strides to make in order to become a contender once again, especially with Gonzalez no longer in the fold.