NFL Wire News

Panthers-Falcons: What we learned

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ATLANTA — The NFC South champion Carolina Panthers are playing much better than their record indicates and are headed to their second consecutive postseason.

Quarterback Cam Newton accounted for two touchdowns and the Carolina defense dominated in a convincing 34-3 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

The Panthers (7-8-1) clinched their second straight NFC South title, and they head into the playoffs with a four-game winning streak. Carolina earned the No. 4 seed in the NFC and will host the Arizona Cardinals in a wild-card game next week.

“It means a lot to this franchise,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “It really does, and the beautiful thing is that record doesn’t matter. That’s the best part it’s about that we have won the South two years in a row. We were the first team to do it from the South, and that’s something for us to build on as we go forward as a football team.”

Panthers safeties Roman Harper and Tre Boston each returned interceptions for touchdowns, and linebacker Thomas Davis returned a fumble deep inside Atlanta territory to fuel the rout.

The Falcons (6-10) will miss the postseason for the second straight year and head into an offseason that could bring abundant change. Just hours before kickoff, reports surfaced that the Falcons already hired a search firm to help identify potential replacements for coach Mike Smith, who deflected questions about his future after the game.

“I’m here as the head football coach until (owner) Arthur Blank tells me anything different,” Smith said.

Smith said he wouldn’t comment on whether his staff deserves to return, but he added, “This is a business about winning football games, and that’s how you’re judged.”

Quarterback Matt Ryan said the speculation about his coach’s future was not a distraction, but the Falcons played like something was on their minds from the very beginning.

Harper picked off Ryan’s overthrow late in the second quarter and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown to put the Panthers up 17-3 and jumpstart a chant of “Let’s go Panthers” in the Georgia Dome.

The Carolina defense struck again on the Falcons’ next possession, with Davis returning a fumble by receiver Roddy White 20 yards to the Atlanta 4-yard line.

Newton plowed in on the next play and did his trademark Superman touchdown dance in the end zone with the Panthers in control 24-3. Newton scored the 33rd rushing touchdown of his career, tying him with John Elway, Otto Graham and Y.A. Tittle for 10th most all-time by a quarterback in NFL history.

Newton completed 10 of 16 passes for 114 yards and the touchdown. He added 51 yards rushing, just 12 fewer than the Falcons had as a team.

“The defense playing lights out like they did today and creating turnovers makes our job easier,” Newton said. “We have to create great habits this time of the season where each down counts and every point counts as well.”

Atlanta couldn’t get anything going offensively and struggled to protect Ryan, who was sacked six times. The three points were the fewest the Falcons scored in a game since a 27-2 loss to the New Giants in a 2011 wild-card game.

“It was a lot of things,” Atlanta offensive guard Justin Blalock said. “We threw ourselves in the hole pretty early. We were unable to save ourselves. We did everything we could, clawing, digging, scratching, but it did not work whatsoever. We kept shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Ryan completed 29 of 47 passes for 260 yards with no touchdowns and the two interceptions. White finished with eight receptions for 104 yards.

“I felt like we had a good week of practice,” Ryan said. “We just didn’t play well.”

Kicker Matt Bryant’s 21-yard field goal in the second quarter accounted for the Falcons’ points.

What the Panthers said:

–“When you play offense and your defense does that (holding Atlanta to three points), it makes life really easy. That was a big-time defense. We’ve gotten used to that around here. Those guys have done a heck of a job.” — Tight Greg Olsen.

–“With all the adversity we have faced, their resilience and their toughness, they deserve this. They have worked very hard, and, sure, the situation was in our favor at the end of the day because we got this chance, we got this opportunity and we didn’t quit.” — Coach Ron Rivera.

What the Falcons said:

–“I wish I would’ve done a whole lot of things better. Ultimately, I’m the one that’s held responsible. This is a 6-10 football team, and there’s one person that the record’s attributed to, and that’s the head football coach. We were 6-10 in 2014. There are a whole lot of things I could’ve done differently and better. They’re all learning experiences, and I will take those and in the future make sure that I don’t make the same mistakes that I made this season.” — Falcons coach Mike Smith

–“I don’t like to speculate. Mike (Smith) has done a great job. The seven years I have been here, he has been first class. He shows up every day. He works really hard. He is incredibly consistent. You know where you stand with him as a player, and I think guys respect that. I have nothing but a lot of respect for Mike.” — Quarterback Matt Ryan.

What we learned about the Panthers:

1. Carolina is a very different team than the one that dropped six straight in the middle of the season. Quarterback Cam Newton accounted for eight touchdowns with only one interception in his past three games. The defense surrendered as average of only 10.75 points during the four-game win streak. This is a team peaking at the right time.

2. Carolina came out in the no-huddle offense and looked good. Newton led scoring drives on the team’s first two possessions. With the Panthers up 10-0, the Carolina defense took over from there, just as coach Ron Rivera planned. “We were trying to set the tempo, trying to play fast and get our quarterback in a rhythm,” Rivera said. “I always look for it with us initially to have our defense feed off that energy.”

–QB Cam Newton finished the regular season playing his best football. He accounted for eight touchdowns, five passing, with only one interception in his past three games. He missed the Tampa Bay game in Week 15, recovering from a back injury he sustained in a car accident, but he showed no signs of being hampered in a stellar performance against the Falcons.

–RB Jonathan Stewart stepped up with RB DeAngelo Williams out for a fourth straight game with a broken hand, helping complement QB Cam Newton in the running game. Stewart carried the ball 13 times for 49 yards against the Falcons. He also caught two passes for 20 yards.

–DT Star Lotulelei had two of the Panthers’ six sacks of Atlanta QB Matt Ryan. He also helped limit the Falcons to just 63 rushing yards.

What we learned about the Falcons:

1. All signs point to a coaching change that will end coach Mike Smith’s seven-year tenure. Reports surfaced a few hours before Sunday’s kickoff that the Falcons hired a search firm to help identify potential replacements for Smith, who is 67-50 with the Falcons and led the franchise to its first back-to-back winning seasons in his first two years.

2. Whoever ends up as coach in Atlanta will have a quality quarterback in Matt Ryan and an elite receiver in Julio Jones, but upgrades to the defense and running game are needed. Veteran running back Steven Jackson was more effective in his second season with the Falcons, but he was unable to play Sunday due to a quad injury. Without Jackson, the Falcons managed just 63 yards on the ground. The defense entered the final week of the season dead last against the pass, but it did improve in the second half of the season.

–WR Julio Jones, who struggled with injuries during his NFL career, emerged as an elite receiver this year. He caught four passes for 58 yards without a touchdown against the Panthers. Jones and KR Devin Hester will represent the Falcons in the Pro Bowl.

–RB Steven Jackson was held out of Sunday’s game against the Panthers because of a quad injury. Without Jackson, the Falcons managed just 63 yards on the ground. Jackson seemed to find his rhythm late in the season, but he was unable to go in the biggest game of the season.

–QB Matt Ryan threw two interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, and was sacked six times against the Panthers. However, he did eclipse 200 yards passing for an NFL-record 33rd straight game, completing 29 of 47 passes for 260 yards.


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