CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Arthur Smith stood at the podium, trying to explain what happened. Inside the Atlanta Falcons' locker room, a morose, sullen vibe hung in the air and in the words of his players.

Atlanta entered Sunday with playoff aspirations, tied atop a subpar NFC South with everything in the Falcons' control. By the end of a 9-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers, owners of the worst record in the NFL, the Falcons were left needing help to make the postseason and with legitimate questions about the futures of Smith and his quarterback, Desmond Ridder.

Smith was asked bluntly: "You have three games left, [but] on what basis do you believe you're the right coach for this team?"

Smith's answer essentially came down to belief in himself and what he has been building in Atlanta. His players backed him, too.

"In any job you take, you gotta have a lot of self-belief. You know, this is the cycle of it. There's consequences when you lose so these are natural questions, right," Smith said. "It's NFL 101. Your job is to win games. There's a lot of things that ... everybody's situation is different. There's a lot of things that we've dealt with early on but ultimately, you know, the job is to win games and get into the playoffs.

"We'll still have that opportunity. It'll look like a long shot but each one of these years has been different. We've got three different teams. Movement at some critical spots, but your job is to win. We've made a lot of good ... but I've got a ton of self-belief."

For 10 minutes Smith answered questions while his boss, Falcons owner Arthur Blank, sat in the third row of the postgame news conference. Blank attends every postgame presser, win or lose.

His head coach was asked about everything -- his job security, whether Ridder was still his starting quarterback, turnovers at critical times and a failure of the defense to stop a game-winning drive.

Had Smith been told anything about his future?

"Not like a state of the union," Smith said. "Every day you go in there, try the best you can at your job. And that's all we work on. It's improving, trying to win games."

That's been the question for Atlanta. Has the improvement come? If it has, has it been enough? The majority of Atlanta's losses this season have come from a combination of two things: Bad turnovers at critical times and the defense allowing a late, game-winning drive.

Both occurred Sunday against Carolina. A fumble by rookie running back Bijan Robinson gave the Panthers their only starting field position in Atlanta territory and led to a field goal. Ridder threw an interception in the red zone with 7:35 left that led to the Panthers' eventual game-winning drive and an Eddy Pineiro field goal as time expired.

"This one hurts," defensive lineman Calais Campbell said. "I feel like we didn't make the plays when we needed to."

The defense didn't allow a touchdown, but the Panthers' last two drives led to field goals.

Seven points scored on offense. A seventh win not attained. Far too many questions unanswered, where Smith once again said they'll be evaluating everything, including whether Ridder will remain the starting quarterback.

They've done this before. For every positive thing that happens with the Falcons, a negative seems sure to follow.

In two weeks, Atlanta went from controlling its fate to having a 17% chance of making the playoffs and a 12% chance of winning the NFC South. Now, the Falcons will be dependent on others as much as anything they do to make the postseason.

The last two weeks left edge rusher Lorenzo Carter sitting at his locker Sunday, still in a towel long after most of his teammates had left for the team buses. He'd lived these types of seasons before with the Giants. He sat quietly, saying the Falcons "didn't do enough to win" the last two games.

How in almost every one of Atlanta's eight losses this season, the Falcons were close only to have it unravel at the end. They've lost fourth-quarter leads in their last four losses and their last six losses have been by one possession.

"All of 'em hurt, man. Especially seeing as we've been in all of the games that we lost," Carter said. "I think we only lost one game where we were out of it.

"All of 'em hurt."