When the Carolina Panthers have won this season it's fallen into some variation of "we didn't learn anything". This is what happens when you beat the early-season New Orleans Saints, the dysfunctional Philadelphia Eagles, and a Washington Redskins team who have had mixed success. However, when you beat an 11-win team, that says something about a team who haven't given up, despite a disappointing season.
There's no way to really know what changed, but Cam Newton has been a new quarterback over the last month. It's more than just a shift in play-calling leading to an advantage, as Newton's ability as a pocket passer has improved leaps and bounds for no apparent reason. It's almost as if a light switch popped on, and all of a sudden the game has slowed down. Not only is he commanding the pocket better, but Newton is trusting his receivers more. That's the primary reason the offense has looked like a different team.
The biggest offensive difference was seeing big plays return to Carolina. There have been moments, but all too fleeting this year. Against the Falcons we saw a 72-yard Cam Newton run, and a 53-yard DeAngelo Williams catch become the key difference makers, and the reason the Panthers win.
What else did we learn on Sunday? Oh yeah, to leave Vegas to Vegas, and don't listen to me. There's a reason I'm a writer, and not a professional gambler.
Cam Newton - Extremely Optimistic
He's back! In the last four weeks Cam Newton has thrown for 1,077 yards, 8 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, while adding another three touchdowns on the ground. He's been absolutely sensational, everything we could ask for, and more.
Luke Kuechly - Extremely Optimistic
Luke just keeps getting more tackles. At this point it's getting silly. With another 16 (11 solo), the rookie is on pace for 160 tackles, setting a rookie record for the Carolina Panthers.
Steve Smith - Extremely Optimistic
Another week, another 100-yard game. Just as Cam Newton is coming out of his funk, so too Steve Smith is seeing a resurgence. Another 1,000 yard year for Smitty, and it's proof positive why he's one of the best.
Greg Olsen - Extremely Optimistic
The Panthers' tight end is quietly on pace for an 848 yard season with 5 touchdowns - Olsen has played like a 1,000 yard tight end, even if he hasn't always gotten the opportunities. Given that the price to bring him to Carolina was a third round pick, it's safe to say Hurney got that one right.
Coin tosses! - Extremely optimistic
The Panthers are undefeated when they win the coin toss... it's about time.
Playing not to lose - Extremely Pessimistic
Two things happened in the fourth quarter that helped save the game: Firstly, the referees denied Roddy White's two point conversion. Secondly, Cam, DeAngelo, and Amini combined to get the 53-yard play that put the Falcons away. What was still concerning on defense was the willingness to sit in a soft-zone, and allow Atlanta to pick them apart underneath. Unlike previous weeks the defense held, but this is a dangerous trend.
The season is over, and while a win costs draft spots, I'd trade any pick for the reassurance that Cam Newton's rookie season wasn't a fluke. The last four weeks have reassured his ability as an NFL quarterback. While he's not perfect, and still has a lot to work on, he's playing great football.