Earning their first trip to the playoffs in five years was not
enough for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, who still have
plenty to play for in Week 17.
With the NFC South crown still up for grabs and an outside shot
at the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the visiting Panthers will try
to wrap up the division and a first-round bye with a victory over
the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Newton struggled all afternoon last Sunday in a crucial matchup
against New Orleans, but he again made big plays down the stretch,
throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds
left to lift the Panthers (11-4) to a 17-13 win and their first
playoff berth since 2008.
“Cam was very resilient,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He struggled
all day and he knows that. But he came through when we needed
Newton had just 116 yards passing in the game’s first 59 minutes
before taking over at the Carolina 35 trailing 13-10 with 55
seconds to go and no timeouts.
Playing on a sore ankle and with receiver Steve Smith on the
sideline because of a left knee injury, Newton completed passes of
37 and 14 yards before Hixon made his diving catch on the left side
of the end zone. It was the third time since mid-November that
Newton marched the Panthers downfield on their final possession to
win a game.
Carolina can clinch the South and a first-round bye with a win,
and still has a chance to earn the top seed and home-field
advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. That would require a victory
over Atlanta, a win by San Francisco at Arizona and St. Louis
“When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people
that were jumping off the bandwagon,” Newton said. “It was a lot of
finger-pointing and saying, `I told you so.’ But as a team we stuck
together and didn’t veer off and had faith in each other.”
Securing a bye has become even more important for Carolina after
Smith went down with a sprained posterior cruciate ligament only 8
minutes into last Sunday’s game. The 34-year-old, who has 746
receiving yards this season, will not play against Atlanta but
should be fine for the playoffs.
“It was very good news considering the alternative,” Rivera said
Monday after an MRI revealed the nature of the injury. “Where he
sprained it and the lack of severity there was, that was all
positive news. It really was. And I’m excited and very happy for
Rivera said Ted Ginn Jr. will take Smith’s starting spot and see
the majority of reps against the Falcons, but said Hixon and
Brandon LaFell could also see plenty of action. The team is also
likely to activate wide receiver Marvin McNutt as its No. 4
“If we can win this week we get a break, and that’s huge,”
middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “It’s going to be tough. The
Falcons are a good team and they have good weapons. They’re much
better than their record shows.”
Coming into 2013 with high expectations after falling 10 yards
shy of reaching the Super Bowl, Atlanta (4-11) may be relishing its
chance to play spoiler at the end of a very disappointing
If the Falcons win, the Saints can claim the NFC South crown by
beating Tampa Bay.
Atlanta, which has been outscored by 74 points in the second
half this season, blew a third-quarter lead in a 34-24 loss at San
Francisco on Monday night in a rematch of last season’s NFC
“We’re just not making the plays when they’re presented to us to
win those types of games,” coach Mike Smith said. “And that’s
something that we have to continue to work on and get right for
this last game against Carolina.”
The absence of Smith won’t necessarily limit the Panthers’
offense, but they may turn to more of a ground game against
Atlanta, which is allowing the second-most rushing yards per game
(135.9) in the NFL this season.
Newton will surely find plenty of space to make plays, and he’s
averaged 8.3 yards per carry over his five career games against the
Atlanta is last in the league in rushing yards at 78.1 per game
and the Panthers boast the No. 2 run defense (87.7 allowed), so the
Falcons’ offense figures to rely heavily on the right arm of Matt
Ryan has eclipsed 4,000 passing yards for the third straight
season but has a career-worst 16 interceptions after signing a
five-year contract extension last summer. He threw three of those
in Carolina’s 34-10 home win in Week 9, a point total that matches
Atlanta’s season low.
The Falcons have averaged 33.0 points in winning all five games
at home against the Panthers since Ryan came into the league.
This may be the final career game for tight end Tony Gonzalez,
who returned this season hoping for a chance to win his first Super
Bowl only to watch the Falcons crumble.
The future Hall of Famer has still been productive at age 37
with 803 receiving yards and a team-leading eight touchdowns. He
holds virtually every major career record at his position,
including catches (1,321), yards (15,071) and touchdowns (111).