Cam Newton started the game great through the air by completing seven of his first eight passes in the first quarter, including a touchdown pass to Ed Dickson. However, over the final three quarters the Panthers quarterback went 3 for 8 for only 55 yards. He did contribute 51 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown which certainly helped his final stat line.
This wasn’t Newton’s most productive game of his career but he did play within the offensive game plan and did enough to get the Panthers a win. The biggest plus from his game against the Falcons may be the fact that he did not have a turnover. This was only the second game in the past 11 starts for Cam Newton where he didn’t have a turnover.
If fans were to just look at the rushing yard total against the Atlanta Falcons (194 yards), it would seem like the running backs had a huge day. However, 92 of those yards came from Newton and wide receiver Philly Brown.
Jonathan Stewart had a fairly quiet game, something Panthers’ fans are not used to seeing as of late. The carries were more evenly split this game with Stewart carrying the ball 13 times for 49 yards, Fozzy Whittaker with seven carries for 41 yards and Mike Tolbert carrying it seven times for only 12 yards.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
It was a lackluster performance by the wide receivers and tight ends against the Atlanta Falcons, specifically rookie Kelvin Benjamin. He finished the day with one reception for nine yards on five targets. It seemed like it was going to be a long day for Benjamin early on when he beat the Falcons’ defender and looked to be on his way to a long touchdown but dropped what seemed to be an easy reception.
For most of the year it was Benjamin and Greg Olsen that carried the passing game but against the Falcons it was Jerricho Cotchery and Ed Dickson who came up big for Carolina. Cotchery caught all three of his targets and has now caught his last 13 targets. Dickson meanwhile caught the only passing touchdown for the Panthers near the end of the first quarter.
This is probably the one position that stood out the most against the Atlanta Falcons. This starting five has continued to play well together and is gelling at just the right time. The pass protection was excellent as Newton was sacked only once and hit three times while in the pocket. It is hard to find a flaw in the offensive line with the way they are playing right now.
The Panthers defensive line came to life against the Atlanta Falcons and looked like the pass rush from a season ago. They finished the game with 5.5 sacks and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei led the way with two of them. He had a total of seven tackles, three for a loss and three QB hits to go along with his sacks.
One of the reasons this group is so good is because how deep they are across the line. Against the Falcons, the Panthers used nine players (five defensive ends, four defensive tackles) who had at least 20 or more snaps. This kind of rotation is going to wear out opposing offensive lines and keep the Panthers’ players fresh.
The Panthers linebackers were flying around the field against the Atlanta Falcons and Adarius Glanton may have had the best game out of all of them. The undrafted rookie started his second straight game for the injured A.J. Klein and put together another strong performance. He finished the game with five tackles and a forced fumble. The fumble was returned by Thomas Davis down to the 10-yard line and put the Panthers in position for their second touchdown of the day.
For a majority of the season, the Panthers have primarily only had Luke Kuechly (1015 snaps) and Thomas Davis (989 snaps) on the field. Among linebackers, Klein is next with only 289 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. However based on the performance by Glanton the past two weeks, the coaching staff may thing about playing more 4-3 defenses to keep the rookie on the field.
Matt Ryan finished the game with almost identical in terms of completions and yards from their first matchup in Week 11 (31-for-45, 268 yards) to Week 17 (29-for-47, 260 yards). The difference the second time around was the Panthers ability to force turnovers. The first matchup Ryan didn’t throw an interception but threw two in the second game, both of which were returned for touchdowns.
One of the biggest struggles for Ryan was the fact that his favorite target, Julio Jones, was almost completely shut down in both games by Josh Norman. The Falcons’ wide receiver had the third most catches and receiving yards in the NFL this season but against the Panthers combined for only 10 receptions and 117 yards. This is due in large part to how well Norman has played in these two games.
The special teams unit had a solid game against the Atlanta Falcons. Kicker Graham Gano was perfect on two field goal attempts and four extra-point attempts while punter Brad Nortman had 3 punts average 48.3 yards and a long of 72 yards.
The only hiccup for this group came at the end of the first quarter when Devin Hester was able to return a kickoff for 66 yards before being pushed out by Joe Webb. The Panthers were up at this point 10-0 but a touchdown by Hester at this stage of the game could have had a major impact on the outcome.