By Ted Fleming
Boasting can sometimes come back to bite you, just ask Ryan Kalil. The three-time Pro Bowl center took out a full page ad in July with a headline that blared, “Why the Carolina Panthers will win Super Bowl XLVII,” with the first reason, “Because we have to.” Clearly, the Panthers are not going to win football’s biggest game, they won’t even be there – unless they buy a ticket.
More recently, like this past week, Greg Hardy said something that drew the ire of some and laughter from others, only he might have been on to something when he said that the Panthers were better than the Falcons.
It was hard to understand the statement, considering Atlanta was 11-1 and Carolina 3-9 before the two squads met for the second and final time on Sunday. If there was a reason for optimism, it might have something to do with their Week 4 meeting. The Panthers had the Falcons’ number that day until a late field goal denied them of a .500 record. As it turned out, it was the second of a five-game slide essentially ending any playoff talk.
For one week at least, Hardy was correct because the Panthers came away with a 10-point win and it was not as close as the score would indicate. In fact, the 30-20 win might have opened up the possibility that the Falcons are not as good as their record, something the rest of the league might want to look at. If there’s anything Carolina can take some joy in, it’s that they kept Atlanta from walking away with home field advantage in the playoffs.
Here is a breakdown of how the Panthers backed Hardy up:
Coaching: Ron Rivera’s commitment to the ground game has opened up new vistas in the Panthers’ offense, and this might have been one of their best performances ever–475 total yards! It all began with winning the coin flip, ending a streak of 13 straight losses, and they receiving the ball. Chalk up seven points and it was full steam ahead. On the other side of the ball, the defense put the Falcons back on their heels right from the get-go and completely shut down the run. You do that, you win more than you will lose. Today Carolina won. Grade: A
Quarterback: In his first seven games Cam Newton had some ugly stats, five touchdowns against eight interceptions and a 1-6 record. Over the last six he has turned that around is going 3-3 based on a near perfect 11 TDs and only two picks. Newton continues to lead the team in rushing and he added a whopping 109 yards, becoming the first ever Panthers quarterback to hit the century mark. He also ended a 23 game drought of anyone getting 100 in a game. It helped that he had a 72-yard romp for a touchdown, but do not overlook his passing stats–23/35, 287 yards, two touchdowns and a 110.1 passer rating. He has gone four straight without a pick and may be on the best run of his brief career. Grade: A+
Offense: It can be summed up in just one statistic – 475 yards. Is this the 2012 Panthers we are talking about? DeAngelo Williams, subbing for an injured Jonathan Stewart, showed that he is also a double threat rushing for 56 and adding another 56 through the air, 53 coming on a 53-yard TD strike. Fullback Mike Tolbert also chipped in with 20 and 18, but if there was something to crow about it was the offensive line that provided Newton the time to make excellent decisions all game long. Steve Smith was everywhere and it showed catching seven for 109 – he has at least one catch in 88 straight games dating back to 2006 – while tight end Greg Olsen made an outstand grab on the back end of a 25 yard touchdown pass from Newton on the opening drive. It would have been nice if a back ended the streak of consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher, but it ended nonetheless. Grade: A
Defense: This is the area that has shown the steadiest improvement and Sunday may have been the best game this year, because it came against the vaunted Falcons. Quarterback Matt Ryan will pick you apart when things are equal, but things were not. The ground game was stuffed to the tune of just 35 yards. Yes, you read that correctly, 35. Ryan still got his numbers, 342 yards and 2 TDs, but he needed 49 passes to get there. To add a little insult, Atlanta had never been shut out in the first half, or any half for that matter, this year and they trailed after 30-minutes 16-0. Ryan was sacked twice and even with a late game surge the Falcons could not match the Panthers in time of possession, 35:47 to 24:13. Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate Luke Kuechly had a spectacular afternoon recording 16 tackles, 11 solo. He now has 130 in 13 games, 79 solo. Grade: A-
Special teams: The Panthers had just 11 field goals entering the game, the fewest in the NFL, until Graham Gano booted three straight in the second quarter to help the team open up a huge 23-0 lead. The final three-pointer came with no time left on the clock in the second quarter, the first time all season Carolina had put up points inside the two minute warning. Three of Gano’s six kickoffs went for touchbacks as well. Brad Nortman had to punt only twice and averaged 44 yards. Armond Smith had three kickoff returns, one going for 26. Grade: B+
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.