Four Downs: Newton, Panthers pound Falcons, 34-10

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons marked an opportunity for Carolina to either solidify its status as a playoff contender … or dredge up thoughts of Same Old Panthers from years past.

With the meat of their schedule on the horizon, the Panthers (5-3) proved the former on this day, beating the Falcons 34-10 to notch their fourth straight win.

Here are four observations from Carolina’s victory, which was a closer game than final score may indicate:

1. The Panthers proved they can win when Cam Newton struggles

From a history standpoint, Newton tossing two interceptions has been a recipe for defeat. Since his arrival in Charlotte, the Panthers are 0-9 when throwing multiple picks.

Yet, somehow, the Panthers won. That’s why left tackle Jordan Gross says it’s the proudest he’s been of his quarterback.

“It wasn’t real pretty. He was getting banged around in the pocket, the run game was slow starting, but (Newton) had to kind of hang in there and take our punches. He just kind of kept his composure and was never rushed or stressed out or seemed to feel any pressure,” Gross said. “By the end of the game, we were all smiling.”

Head coach Ron Rivera thought Newton was a little anxious in the first half, repeatedly missing receivers high. In the past, Newton has struggled in games that include first-half interceptions.

That wasn’t the case Sunday. Newton not only came out and led a field goal drive right out of the gates, he also anchored a touchdown drive two possessions later.

Newton finished 23 of 37 for 249 yards with two touchdowns — one on the ground, one one through the air. Most importantly, he didn’t throw any interceptions in the second half and the Panthers were able to step on the Falcons’ throats in the fourth quarter.

 “To beat a team by that margin and not playing your ‘A’ game, that’s the sign of a good team,” said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. “You have to play when things don’t go well. Things aren’t going to always go well. You have to be able to go out and stay the course and rally, and that’s what we did today.”

2. Is this the best defense in the NFL?

Most pundits believe the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs have the best defense in the NFL; but after Sunday, it’s not unfair to ask whether that title actually belongs with the club in Charlotte.

The Panthers entered the game ranked second in the NFL in scoring defense and third in yards allowed per game and produced another stifling effort Sunday. Carolina only allowed 289 total yards and crushed the Falcons’ chances of victory with four takeaways.

The Panthers first scoring drive came after Matt Ryan tried to find Tony Gonzalez up the seam, but linebacker Luke Kuechly picked it off to give the Panthers ball inside Falcons territory.

Thomas Davis later intercepted a Matt Ryan pass down the sidelines. Then, the Panthers delivered the final blow midway through the fourth:

The Panthers had just scored to go up 14 when Ryan targeted receiver Harry Douglas on an out pattern to the sidelines. But Drayton Florence jumped on the ball, made the shoestring catch and trotted into the end zone to extend Carolina’s ever-expanding lead to 31-10.

“Honestly, we’re trying to become one of those ‘nickname’ defenses like the Steel Curtain. Those guys that are dominant,” defensive end Greg Hardy said.

“The teams that come in and score a lot of points, come in and struggle here because you’re only getting seven points on the board. It gives our offense a lot of time to throw the ball, lot of time to run the ball, and a lot of time to wear the other team down emotionally and physically.”

Hardy — always willing to lay a nickname on different players or his defensive unit — wasn’t ready to attach a moniker to this defense just yet, though.

“I feel like you gotta get the abs before you get the tats. You can’t get artwork on a fat stomach, and we gotta shut down these four or five yards runs and giving up the long throws [before we get a nickname],” Hardy said. “Not that they’re not a good team but points shouldn’t have been on the board.”

It’s that type of stingy defense that has allowed the Panthers to vault back into the playoff discussion; and while no one wants to talk Playoffs yet, it’s impossible to ignore the Panthers’ jump back to relevancy.

Pundits still point to the schedule — one that’s seen the Panthers beat up on also-ran clubs for four straight weeks. That all changes next Sunday with a road date against the 6-2 San Francisco 49ers — one of the premier games of the Week 10 schedule.

“I don’t feel like anyone gives us the credit. I’m OK with that. People come in and don’t expect it until they get hit in the mouth,” Hardy said. “And that’s how it’s going to be from here on out until we get into first place or we are the no. 1 defense or we make it to the playoffs. So we got a lot to prove.”

They can prove plenty next Sunday.

3. Rivera’s fourth-down gambles keep paying off

Long considered one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL, “Riverboat Ron” has apparently thrown caution to the wind during the Panthers’ four-game winning streak, repeatedly going for it on fourth down.

He did it again on Sunday. With the Panthers up 7-3 facing a 4th and 1 from the Falcons’ 14, Rivera made a gutsy play-action call. The defense bit hard on a fake handoff to the left-hand side and Newton hit a wide-open Olsen (four catches, 66 yards, one TD) for an easy touchdown.

“It’s looking at the opportunities, and in my mind, talking with our coaches, especially the offensive side, they’re confident in what we can do and the things that we have the opportunity to do,” Rivera said. “I know the things that’s worked very well has been we’ve run the ball, we’ve run the ball, we’ve run the ball. I liked the call. I thought it was a great one and we made one right there.”

Heading into Sunday, the Panthers had converted four of six opportunities on fourth down, with Rivera passing on a potential field goal each time. And each risk involved a running play. That may explain why Carolina caught Atlanta totally off guard with the Newton-to-Olsen touchdown pass.

“We came down and we said in the huddle we really have to sell it,” Olsen said. “On 4th and 1, the last couple of weeks, we’ve been pretty much a run-first team, even on third and shorts. I was the guy out there and I was just praying I caught it.”

That score proved extra pivotal, considering the Falcons drove 80 yards the very next drive.

4. Offensive guard is a great concern for the Panthers

First, Chris Scott went down. Then his replacement Jeff Byers did, too. When you’re only carrying eight offensive lineman on the active roster, uncomfortable situations happen.

But who better than Chandler, though, to face trial by fire like that. It’s that kind of ability to adjust that keeps him on the roster.

Chandler, who played along the offensive line his first two years of college, was playing at defensive tackle as a rookie last year. Now, he’ll be at offensive guard — again — for the Panthers-49ers game next week, with Scott (sprained knee) and Byers (sprained foot) both questionable to return.

“You just go to be ready when your number’s called. Especially with the offensive line, you don’t just play one position. You got to know how to play every position and when I got in there the guys helped me a lot,” Chandler said. “I just got out there and played football and that’s what I was paid to do and what I love to do.”

Chandler praised Ryan Kalil and Byron Bell for helping him quickly adjust to a new position, without the offensive being thrown out of whack. Chandler says offensive guard is much quicker. The defensive tackles get on top of you … and there’s less space to cover.

“Nate was learning on the fly. A couple times I called the play and going to the line of scrimmage, and as I’m in in cadence, he’s asking a player who I have,” Newton said. “But he did an unbelievable job, and he’s going to continue learning. He’s a competitor. I got all faith in him that he’ll come back Monday and try to be better at that position as well.”