Immediately after Carolina crushed the Atlanta Falcons in a winner-take-all game for the NFC South title in Week 17 last season, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said, “The beautiful thing (is) record doesn't matter.”
Rivera's statement couldn't have rang more true if he'd made it again two months ago.
Carolina's current 12-0 mark certainly looks much prettier than last year's mediocre 7-8-1 line that was enough to qualify for the playoffs, and after five weeks this year it seemed Sunday's matchup against the visiting Falcons would be the first of two important games in another down-to-the-wire race for the division crown.
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The Falcons moved to 5-0 with a 25-19 overtime victory over Washington on Oct. 11, just ahead of the 4-0 Panthers. But in what could wind up being an historic meltdown, Atlanta has dropped six of seven since to fall out of playoff position.
Its 23-19 loss to Tampa Bay last week marked its fifth straight and handed a third consecutive division title to Carolina, which rallied behind Cam Newton in the final minutes for a 41-38 victory at New Orleans later Sunday.
The Falcons' impressive early record certainly doesn't mean anything now, and all the favorable statistics that accompanied it are fading as well. Prior to this season, 66 of the 72 teams that started 5-0 since the merger in 1970 made the playoffs, and none have finished below .500.
Instead of Atlanta and Carolina battling this week and again in Week 16 for a leg up in the division race, the Falcons simply are trying to sneak into the NFC's final wild-card spot, currently held by 7-5 Seattle.
“Obviously Carolina is a great football team and they have been playing awesome this year,” said Matt Ryan, who has thrown five touchdowns and six interceptions over the last three. “You have to give them their respect, but you know in this league, anything can happen any week. We have to really take a look at ourselves and see what we can do better and see how we can be better next week.”
Carolina has won 16 consecutive regular-season games, including a 34-3 drubbing of the Falcons in the last meeting that clinched the South in the final week of last season. Newton threw for a score and ran for another, and the Panthers returned both of Ryan's interceptions for touchdowns.
Newton has thrown five touchdowns in two of the last three games and undoubtedly will received plenty of MVP votes. He's tossed a career-high 25 TDs while rushing for seven more, and his 93.2 rating easily would be a career best.
That includes a 115.0 rating in the fourth quarter that ranks second in the league. Newton has completed 65.3 percent of passes – his best for any period – with six touchdowns and one interception in the final 15 minutes.
''Those moments, he just lives for them,'' said Jerricho Cotchery, who caught the winning 15-yard touchdown pass from Newton with 1:05 remaining last week. ''A lot of people shy away from those moments. But some people dream about being in those situations. When he is in them, he embraces them fully.''
Newton also has shined in the red zone, throwing 19 touchdowns and no picks. Carolina is scoring a touchdown 65.3 percent of the time it moves inside the 20 to rank fifth in the league after finishing 27th at 46.8 last season.
That's part of the reason the Panthers can secure a first-round bye in the playoffs by beating the Falcons for the fifth time in six meetings.
“It's the first step, but we've got to continue to play,” Rivera said. “The next big step obviously is Atlanta. They're a team battling for their playoff lives.”
In fact, each of Carolina's last four will be against clubs holding onto playoff hopes. It will play at the New York Giants next week before visiting Atlanta on Dec. 27, then hosts Tampa Bay on Jan. 3.
That schedule is enough to keep the Panthers in business mode rather than focusing on completing an undefeated regular season. Rivera said he doesn't plan to rest his starters all that much down the stretch despite having a playoff berth locked up in hopes of keeping them fresh for the postseason.
“In the outside world, (an undefeated season) sells. It's great hype,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “But as a team, I don't think the goal has ever changed – you've got to win the week ahead of you.”
Carolina is third in total defense allowing an average of 314.3 yards per game while forcing a league-high 29 turnovers. Atlanta averaged 414.8 yards through its first eight, but that has dropped to 330.5 over its last four.
Julio Jones, the league leader with 1,338 receiving yards, hasn't caught a TD pass during that current stretch, something first-year coach Dan Quinn said is “hard to believe.”
“The truth is right now we're a .500 club and we're playing like it,” Quinn said. “How can we play our best football? We're going to find that answer, and we're going to do that together.”