FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Dan Quinn is trying to make the most out of missing the playoffs in his first season as Falcons head coach.
Atlanta didn't get eliminated from playoff contention until Minnesota won Sunday night, and Quinn says he still laments a six-game losing streak that ruined a 6-1 start.
Even so, the Falcons are coming off their best game under Quinn, knocking off unbeaten rival Carolina to erase some of the sting of a 38-point shutout earlier this month in Charlotte.
"We'd been beaten, we'd been embarrassed, and I wanted to see how our guys would react," Quinn said Monday. "Over the last couple of weeks, I really think we've been playing more like the team I thought we'd be and can be and will be when I see how hard the guys are playing for one another."
Quarterback Matt Ryan had his best game of the year, Julio Jones caught a dramatic touchdown pass and the defense limited the usual damage inflicted by Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
Atlanta (8-7) closes out the season this week at home against New Orleans (6-9).
Quinn knows his offseason message will be a lot easier if the Falcons finish with a winning record.
Losing to five games to opponents that are under .500 left Atlanta with faint playoff hopes.
The Falcons began Sunday needing a three-way, 9-7 tie with Minnesota and Seattle to make the postseason. Now that they're out of the hunt, Quinn's players at least know they can compete with Carolina, the NFL's only 14-1 team.
"They were in, for sure, a big hole and those guys got to dig themselves out of it," he said. "But it's not like water under the bridge, we've gotten a couple of wins and forgotten about it. It's more along the lines that I love the toughness that they're displaying."
Ryan's performance was impressive given how often he set his feet to complete a pass knowing an blocked Carolina defender was about to hit him.
Quinn loves to cite examples of his players responding appropriately to what he calls "no flinch moments." Ryan had plenty despite getting sacked twice, hit three times and losing a fumble. The best was a highlight-reel moment when he escaped the pocket and threw a 70-yard TD pass to Jones as Charles Tillman knocked him down.
Ryan completed 23 of 30 passes for 306 yards, several of them coming as the Falconsconverted nine of 15 third-down chances.
"Those are the kind of moments where your teammates see that and they have that appreciation for you, to," Quinn said. "He demonstrated that really clearly for everybody yesterday in terms of that toughness."
The biggest defensive play was Vic Beasley's sack and stripped fumble on the Panthers' final possession.
Beasley, the NFL's No. 8 overall draft pick, needed a signature play in his rookie season after beginning the game with just three sacks, one interception and 16 solo tackles.
"I've been able to give pressure to quarterbacks throughout the year," Beasley said, "but we've been continuing to work together and we were in a great place this week to get it done."