CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers (5-3) did not play their best game of the season, but, as the old saying goes, “Good teams find ways to win games when they play poorly”. The Panthers did exactly that. They found a way to dominate the Atlanta Falcons (2-6), winning 34-10 at Bank of America Stadium.
Quarterback Cam Newton was 23-of-37 for 249 yards and did have one touchdown pass, but he also threw two interceptions and was very consistent in his passing…mostly high or overthrown…but the Panthers still found a way to win. The defense put enough pressure on Atlanta’s front four to force Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan into throwing 3 interceptions, including one pick-six by Drayton Florence.
Jonathan Stewart returned to the Panthers backfield for the first time since last November and led the home team with 43 yards. His backfield partner, DeAngelo Williams was just a yard shy of that total.
When he found his receivers, Newton picked up chunks of yardage. Brandon LaFell led the receiving corps with 6 receptions for 74 yards. Tight end Greg Olsen caught 4 passes for 66 yards and scored the game’s first touchdown. That reception was Carolina coach Ron Rivera’s first of two fourth-and-one calls of the game and he was rewarded by having Newton find Olsen wide open on a play-action call for a 14 yard touchdown to open the scoring.
Coach Rivera’s second opportunity, in the last two minutes of the game, was an easier call. He let Graham Gano come on for an easy 20-yard field goal to ice the game.
As the league is coming to understand, the Panthers defense is a force to be reckoned with. When you pick off a good quarterback like Matt Ryan three times in a game (linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly and cornerback Drayton Florence) including Florence’s 38-yard pick six (on a nice shoe top grab), obviously your front four is putting pressure on the quarterback. And that’s how this team has been built. Big boys up front, agile linebackers and adequate safeties and cornerbacks. Pressure up front has been a trademark of this year’s team.
Atlanta’s future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez was a real force in the first half, catching 5 Matt Ryan passes for 77 yards. It seemed like every time Ryan went back to pass, Gonzalez was open. The Panthers defense addressed that situation at halftime, jamming him at the line and holding him to just one reception for four yards in the second half. Clearly, without Gonzalez as a target, Ryan and Atlanta’s offense was limited.
The Panthers travel to San Francisco next Sunday for a 4:05 p.m. Eastern start against the very dangerous 49ers, playing in Candlestick Park for one last season before moving to their new stadium in Santa Clara, CA.
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:
Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross: “We’ve done enough to get ourselves back on track. But we’ve got some tough games coming up. Winning this game, I said we’ll feel like we’re a pretty good team. But the rest of our schedule really just gets harder and we’ll see what we’re made of.”
“I thought Cam, even though his stats maybe aren’t as good as the last couple weeks, I was as proud of him today as I’ve been any game,” Gross said. “It wasn’t real pretty. He was getting banged around in the pocket. The run game was kind of slow starting and there wasn’t just long play after long play. We kind of had to hang in there and take our punches.
“He just kept his composure and was never rushed or stressed out or seeming to feel the pressure, and by the end of the day we were all smiling.”
Panthers strong safety Quinten Mikell on Gonzalez: “Tony is hard to stop. That’s why he’s a Hall of Famer. But we just turned it up a little bit the second half and played our technique a little bit better. We were aware where he was at all times. Obviously, we know that Matt Ryan, that’s his go-to guy, especially in crucial situations.”
Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart on returning to action after a year’s layoff due to injuries: “I’m pretty sure if you’re not nervous your first carry, you’re kind of not human. I definitely had some nerves today and got worked out.”
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen: “To beat a team by that margin and not play your ‘A game,’ that’s the sign of a good team.”
Atlanta head coach Mike Smith: “We’re all held responsible and we’re all accountable for the 2-6 record.”
Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez: “I love going up against guys like that (Luke Kuechly) because they bring out the best in me and hopefully I can bring out the best in them.”