Panthers’ Defense Dominates
The Panthers defense has improved over the past couple of weeks but this was by far their best performance all season. The additions of Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston has made a tremendous difference and has really had an effect on the Panthers’ defensive line.
The Panthers’ were able to sack Matt Ryan six times and five different linemen registered at least a .5 sack. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei had been in a slump most of the season but broke out of it in a big way this week with six tackles, three QB hits and team-leading two sacks.
The pressure rattled Matt Ryan and forced him to make off-target throws that the Panthers’ safeties capitalized on. Roman Harper and Tre Boston each had an interception and both returned them for touchdowns. These two plays really decided the game and put it out of reach for the Falcons.
If this defense keeps getting pressure on quarterbacks like they did in Week 17 and the secondary continues to capitalize on these mistakes, they are going to be tough to score on.
Offensive Line Winning in the Trenches
Since the Minnesota game in Week 13, the Panthers have used the same offensive line every game. The stability at the position has really helped the Panthers’ offense to control the time of possession thanks to an impressive run game.
For the third time in the past four weeks, the Panthers ran for over 190 yards on the ground and had more rushing attempts than pass attempts. Before this game, the majority of the work was done by Jonathan Stewart. Against the Falcons though it was a team effort rushing the ball with four players rushing for 40 or more yards. Cam Newton was the team leader with 51 rushing yards and one rushing touchdown.
Since the run game was working so well, and the defense was turning turnovers into points, there was no real need for the Panthers to throw the ball. Newton finished the day 10 of 16 for 114 yards and one touchdown and no interceptions. When he did have to throw, the offensive line gave him plenty of time in the pocket and he was only sacked once. In Newton’s last three starts, he has only been sacked a total of two times, which is vast improvement over the 36 sacks in his first 10 starts of the year.
Panthers are playing their best at the right time
It is hard to image that a team that went eight weeks between wins would be able to make the playoffs, but that is exactly what the Carolina Panthers have done. After digging themselves into a 3-8-1 hole, they rattled off four straight wins to end the season. They won these last four games by an average of 17 points per game.
The biggest change has come on the defensive side of the ball and they haven’t allowed more than 17 points in a game the past four weeks and only allowing an average of 10.75 points per game. On the other side of the ball, the offense has benefited from a rejuvenated run game thanks to an improved offensive line and Jonathan Stewart, who is averaging 98.25 yards per game. This team was even been able to win a game without their star quarterback Cam Newton, who missed the Tampa Bay game due to a back injury suffered in a car accident a few weeks ago.
The Panthers are one of the hottest teams in the NFL right now and even though they have a record below .500, they have to feel confident heading into their home playoff game with the Arizona Cardinals.