The Carolina Panthers extend their winning streak to four games with yet another blowout win over their opponent. They threw up 30+ points for the fourth straight game (a franchise record) and the defense forced four turnovers as they simply overwhelmed the underachieving Falcons, all but sticking a fork in their hopes for football in January. It wasn’t a blowout for a majority of the game though. The Panthers offense had sputtered for the first half. Cam Newton wasn’t very accurate in this contest. He was missing open receivers and throwing the ball too high. The third year quarterback was intercepted twice (both in the first half) and was not very effective running the ball (save one touchdown run in the fourth quarter).
Tony Gonzalez gave the Panthers fits later on in this game. Early on Luke Kuechly was playing man-to-man coverage on the future hall-of-famer and he was holding his own. In the first quarter, his blanket coverage earned him an interception. Throughout the rest of the game the Panthers and Sean McDermott was rotating linebackers to cover Gonzalez and nobody really had any success as the big tight end grabbed six balls for 81 yards with one touchdown. Now, as impressive as Kuechly was, on the touchdown reception he was victimized by not getting enough depth in the middle of the field and Matt Ryan was able to fit the ball into a decent-sized window. This touchdown was the first that the Carolina defense had given up in the first half this year, but luckily for them it was the only one they allowed in the game.
The most impressive thing about this game was the coverage on the back end from the Carolina corners. The team did have three interceptions, although two were by linebackers. The third one was intercepted by Drayton Florence and brought back to the house for six points. That said, outside of the turnovers the back four played pretty well in this one when in man-to-man situations. The Panthers did not get a ton of pressure on Matt Ryan in this one, and in that situation you would think a quarterback like him would be able to pick the opponent apart. As it turns out the Carolina secondary more than held its own and Matty Ice was only able to pass for 217 yards. Of course I do not envy the sixth-year signal caller as he has had to do the Cardinals-Panthers two-step. Now, those are two impressive defenses that are tough to crack, as evidenced by Ryan’s seven picks over those two games.
The offensive line for the Panthers did not look in sync in this one. They were unable to pave running lanes for the trio of DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and returning Jonathan Stewart. However, in the fourth quarter they were able to shut the game out and maul the Atlanta defenders. Carolina was then able to run the ball as they cruised to their eleventh straight contest with 100 or more team rushing yards against the Falcons. Now the pass protection was decent, but the real bug-a-boo for the Panthers was their inefficiency on third and shorts (3rd and 4 or less). Mike Shula constantly called up passing plays and they did not work all that much. On the game Carolina was 8 of 14 on third down, but most of their failures came on the back end of empty third and shorts. This is something that the team will need to work on going forward.
The Panthers are now 5-3 and in the mix in the NFC South (especially with the Saints loss to the Jets on Sunday). The defense suffocated the Falcons, allowing them to compile just 12 first downs and 289 total yards. To me, this game showed off just how good this Carolina squad can be. The offense was not very effective (or at least not as effective as they have been over the past few weeks). They were turning the ball over and Newton was not on his game. In the past, the Panthers probably would have fallen apart in a game like this but because the defense was able to keep it together and hold the Falcons to just 10 points, Carolina was still able to dominate. This top-five defense has the ability to carry this team when the offense is not on (like on Sunday) and they can win games while not playing perfectly. That is the biggest sign that this team is for real and that they have turned the corner from two disappointing seasons under Ron Rivera. It is time to start drinking the Carolina Kool-Aid if you haven’t begun to do so already. These guys could find themselves playing some postseason football if they can continue to play like they have over the past month. As for the Falcons, this is a team that is in shambles at the moment. They are clearly hurting without Roddy White and Julio Jones. They were able to mount a bit of a running game in this contest, but by and large that is something that has been lacking for them all year. Atlanta will use the rest of this season to evaluate the rest of the talent on their team and develop their promising rookie tight end Levine Toilolo who will eventually succeed the great Tony Gonzalez.