By Ted Fleming
You have to give Cam Newton credit. For all the criticism the Panthers’ quarterback took in the ten days between the Giants loss on Thursday Night Football and Sunday’s game against the Falcons, he charged out of the locker room with his usual flair and carried it into the game, performing like he did in so many games during his rookie campaign.
For one game at least, the smile was back, the high-flying side-bumps were back and a look at his stats showed well enough for a win. He didn’t but it was not for a lack of trying.
The Panthers were kept from squaring their record at two up and two down when Matt Bryant, a 37-year old veteran of 11 NFL seasons, booted a 40-yard game winning field goal with only five second left and another player a little old in the tooth, 13-year pro John Abraham, tied a bow on the Falcons victory by sacking Newton on the final play of the game. To give the Falcons a 30-28 win at the Georgia Dome.
OFFENSE: GRADE B-
The numbers for Newton: 15/24, 215-yards, 2 TDs and most importantly no interceptions but that didn’t tell the whole story. The swagger was back and the rest of the team picked it up – on both sides of the ball. However, as good as it sounds there were mistakes and it likely contributed to the Panthers having a little more cushion as time was running down instead of a one-point lead.
What generally makes Carolina such an offensive juggernaut is being able to establish a running game and they did just that. Newton alone racked up 86 on 9 carries while DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combined for another 89. That was enough for Newton to throw up the long ball hitting three different receivers for passes of 25-yards or longer.
On their first possession the Panthers made it look easy needing just five plays to snap a couple of streaks. When Newton hit Olsen for 17-yards and a score, it was the first time the Falcons trailed in a game the entire season and gave Carolina its first TD on an opening drive this year.
Tight end Greg Olsen was Newton’s favorite target hitting him six times for 89-yards and a touchdown while Steve Smith caught three more for 52. Keoloha Pilares had just one reception but it was a 36-yard strike for a touchdown.
What kept the Panthers from opening up on the unbeaten Falcons were two key plays, a drop of a third-down pass by Mike Tolbert at the 2:10 mark of the first would have kept a drive alive as it would have been good for a first down. Three plays after Atlanta got the ball back Matt Ryan hooked up with Roddy White with a 49-yard bomb and a score.
The other killer was the usually sure-handed Steve Smith getting stripped at the Carolina 30 and led to a field goal. The 12-year veteran out of Utah also was flagged for offensive pass interference.
That was ten points the Falcons might not have had when it came down to the final minutes of the game.
DEFENSE: GRADE B-
My oh my, what ten days can do for a team. Matt Ryan had a field day passing going 25/40 for 369 yards and 3 TDs but it was not as easy as the statistics would lead you to believe.
The Panthers did something no other team has done this year, they kept Atlanta off the scoreboard the first time they touched the ball in a game. It was a defensive stop and it might have helped the offense because they would turn it into a seven-point Carolina lead just 2½ minutes later.
Luke Kuechly was in Ryan’s face on first down and Charles Johnson came close to sacking him on second. He did get to him on a crucial third down and split the sack with sack with Frank Alexander.
Better still, Ryan’s life was made miserable throughout being sacked seven times, intercepted once and the Falcons’ QB will be a little sore on Monday because he was hurried and hit nearly 20 more times.
One Panther would have a day that was good and bad all in one. Safety Haruki Nakamura would get his first career interception when he grabbed a Ryan attempt but was burned on a 49-yard TD strike the next time the quarterback had the ball. But the Cincinnati grad would bounce back by knocking down a sure third-down touchdown pass destined for Julio Jones forcing the Falcons to kick a field goal.
OFFENSIVE GAME BALL: Goes to Cam Newton – 15/24, 215-yards, 86-yards rushing, 3 TDs (2 passing, 1 rushing)
DEFENSIVE GAME BALL: Defensive end Charles Johnson – 8 tackles (6 solo), 3.5 sacks for 35.5 yards, 2 tackles for a loss plus being a general pest to Matt Ryan.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.