5 things to know after Panthers beat Falcons 21-20
Cam Newton clinched his first division championship with a big
win in his hometown.
He then celebrated with the large turnout of Carolina fans who
made the drive for the I-85 rivalry. Running toward a large group
of fans in the end zone, Newton looked like he might be planning a
Lambeau Leap. He instead settled for high-fives and pats on his
back as he mingled with fans for several minutes.
Newton threw two touchdown passes, Greg Hardy had a team-record
four sacks and the Panthers clinched their first NFC South title in
five years by beating the Atlanta Falcons 21-20 on Sunday.
”We’ve come a long way,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who had a
touchdown catch. ”It’s been a heck of a ride this year.
”We just continued to fight when people wanted to rule us out.
We continued to press and fight. We’re not done.”
Making their first trip to the playoffs since 2008, the Panthers
(12-4) secured a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at
least one game as the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Newton thanked ”all the fans who came out, the thousands and
thousands who came from Charlotte, who were rooting for us today.
It’s an ego-booster. It does a team great when you have a lot of
support like that.”
Newton recovered from a sluggish start to complete 15 of 27
passes for 149 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Newton threw scoring passes to Ted Ginn Jr. and Olsen, and led the
Panthers with 72 yards rushing.
The Panthers rallied from a 10-0 deficit in the second
”He stood up in a big-time situation,” Ginn said of Newton.
”It wasn’t going good for us for a while, and he just showed
leadership and showed who he is.”
It was a sweet win, especially coming against Atlanta, the
Panthers’ close geographic rival which won the division in 2012.
Carolina’s sack-happy defense led the way.
Carolina set a team record by sacking Matt Ryan nine times. The
defense also produced a touchdown on Melvin White’s 7-yard
interception return in the second quarter.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez had four catches for 56 yards
and was honored at halftime in his final regular-season game. He
has announced plans for retirement.
Gonzalez said his farewell game ”was great.”
”Honestly, it went exactly as I thought it would go except for
the winning part,” Gonzalez said. ”We weren’t able to pull it
out. … My career has turned out to be something more than I ever
thought and more than I ever dreamed.”
Here are five things we learned from the Panthers’ victory:
BALANCED BIG-PLAY DEFENSE: The Panthers’ pass rush can’t be
contained by focusing on one sacks leader. Hardy said ”consistent
pressure from everybody” led to a team-record nine sacks. Charles
Johnson had two, Mike Mitchell, Frank Alexander and Star Lotulelei
each added one. Linebacker Luke Kuechly had a team-leading 10
BYE WEEK SHOULD HELP: Wide receiver Steve Smith and running back
Jonathan Stewart were inactive with knee injuries. Smith favored
his knee as he left the field following pregame warmups. Coach Ron
Rivera has already said he expects Smith to be ready for the
playoffs, and the bye week should help.
WHERE’S THE BEEF? The Falcons (4-12) must address many needs in
the offseason, and no weakness was more glaring against the
Panthers than the patchwork offensive line. From the time projected
starting right tackle Mike Johnson sustained a season-ending leg
injury in training camp, the line has seen near-constant
Undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder, who ended the season as the
starting right tackle, and second-year left tackle Lamar Holmes
were overwhelmed by Carolina’s front seven. Displaced starting
guard Garrett Reynolds was healthy but inactive. Left guard Justin
Blaylock was the only fixture on the line during the season.
RUNNING ON EMPTY: The Falcons began the day ranked last in the
league in rushing. Steven Jackson and Jason Snelling each showed
flashes of effective running, but the Falcons finished with another
modest total of 76 yards rushing on 20 carries.
Jackson, slowed by a hamstring injury early in the season, was
held without a 100-yard game in his first season with the Falcons.
Jackson had 13 carries for 41 yards, including a 17-yarder.
RYAN’S MILESTONE: Ryan passed Steve Bartkowski to become the
Falcons’ career leading passer. Ryan, completing his sixth season,
completed 28 of 40 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and an
interception. He has 23,472 career yards passing, breaking
Bartkowski’s mark of 23,470 yards.