CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Matt Ryan has made a career out of hooking up with Julio Jones for touchdowns.

But for some reason Atlanta’s dynamic duo is stuck in quicksand this season, struggling to find that scoring connection in the first half of a frustrating season for the defending NFC champions.

The season-long struggles continued Sunday in a 20-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Ryan overthrew Jones in the first half for what would have been a 45-yard touchdown. Then, in the fourth quarter, a wide-open Jones inexplicably dropped a would-be 39-yard touchdown reception.

Ryan said Jones makes the big catch “100 out of 100 times.”

It just hasn’t been there this year.

Jones has 658 yards on 43 receptions through eight games, but only one touchdown — a 1-yard catch against the New England Patriots two weeks ago.

Jones was a bit distraught over the drop with 8:12 remaining in the game that would have chopped Carolina’s lead to three points at the time.

“I said, ‘We’re coming back to you. We love you. We know what you stand for,'” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “We’re going to stay aggressive, too. Like you said, if there’s a guy you pick on Earth to throw it to, he’d be the one. He’s made tons of plays and he’s going to make tons more. He’s disappointed. He’s got plenty more chances.”

Ryan did go back to Jones, but the Falcons couldn’t catch up to the Panthers.

Last season, Jones ripped Carolina for 300 yards on 12 receptions and a touchdown in the first meeting between the teams. Jones had 25 receptions for 538 yards and two TDs in his previous three meetings with Carolina.

After his drop Sunday, even Panthers defensive back Kurt Coleman had a few encouraging “spiritual words” for Jones as he jogged back to the huddle, the wide receiver said.

“I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity,” said Jones, who led the Falcons with 118 yards receiving. “I just missed it. No excuses or anything like that. I just missed it.”

Said Ryan: “He has made more plays in this league than probably anybody. Sometimes it happens. I’m not worried one bit about it. We had other opportunities, too.”

The loss leaves the Falcons at 4-4 at the midway point of their season and in third place in the NFC South, two games behind the Saints and 1 ½ games behind the Panthers.

But the Falcons have plenty of opportunities to make up ground.

They still have five division games remaining, including a rematch with the Panthers in the season finale on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta.

But the road won’t be easy.

Their next two games are against the Cowboys and Seahawks and six of their remaining eight opponents entered the weekend with winning records.

“We have played pretty average football and our record is pretty average, so that’s where we are at right now,” Ryan said. “Do I think that we could be better? For sure. I fully expect us to work at practice to try and find ways to improve across the board and I really feel like if we can clean up a couple of situational things we can play some pretty good football.”

Jones said he isn’t concerned over the 4-4 record, but quickly added: “We have to get rolling. We have to stop losing these games.”


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