Instanalysis: The NFC South is Wide Open and the Top 6 Takeaways from Panthers/Falcons

Hide your women, children, and defensive fronts: Jonathan Stewart is back. - Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers trounced their division rival Atlanta Falcons, 34-10 today. (You can check out my recap here.) A game that was too close for comfort provided a lot of insight into this “magical” team. Here are the top six things we learned from the game today:

Honorable Mention: The Panthers’ wins are starting to look more impressive. The biggest critics of the Carolina Panthers' hot start are quick to point out that the combined record of opponents in their wins has been a lowly 8-32. The combined score from their wins? 165-38. The average score? 33-7.6. Their winning record is a result of playing "easy" teams, right?

Wrong.

True, the teams the Panthers have beat all have losing records, but they are far from "easy." In this league, on any given Sunday, every team is talented is capable of winning. Sure, the Panthers made it look easy, but it may not be the case.

Look no further than today, where Panthers’ victims Minnesota, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay all gave playoff contenders a run for their money. The Vikings were up in the 4th quarter against the Dallas Cowboys. The Tennessee Titans needed a late touchdown to steal a victory from the Rams. And the Buccaneers pushed the Seattle Seahawks to the limit, IN Seattle. The Buccaneers stormed out to a 21-0 lead before faltering and losing in overtime.

Makes the Panthers dominant blowouts against these teams look impressive, no?

5) Jonathan Stewart is back, and in midseason form. After surgeries on both ankles and being gone for nearly a year, many Panthers fans (myself included) were skeptical as to how he would perform. Being conservative, even coach Ron Rivera predicted that he would have 6-10 touches, and moving him along slowly.

Or not.

Stewart had an impressive game, accumulating 43 yards on 9 rushes, 22 yards on 3 catches. Using the eye test, Stewart looked as close to 100 percent as he could be. He showed burst up the middle, where DeAngelo Williams normally struggles. He got plenty of yards after contact, and was not easy to tackle. Lastly, and more importantly, he kept Mike Tolbert and Williams fresh. He is still a ways from a full load, but he brings a lot of optimism to the table after his performance today.

4) The offensive line depth is a concern. Already missing guards Amini Silatolu and Garry Williams for the year, this unit could ill afford to lose anymore linemen.

They lost two guards in one half.

Already a backup, right guard Chris Scott hurt his knee against the Falcons. Right after, his replacement Jeff Byers hurt his foot and left on cart. Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer had this update after the game:

Fourth string guard Nate Chandler was "next man up," and he performed admirably. His seal of the Falcons led to Newton’s touchdown run. It remains to be seen if he could hold up for the long haul, as Chandler is a former defensive tackle, turned offensive tackle, now offensive guard. We will monitor the situation closely, but for now, the offensive line is looking mighty thin.

3) The Panthers pass rush is slowing down. Rightfully so, the front seven has gotten a lot of publicity lately for being the baddest and perhaps the best pass rush in the NFL.

But not so much lately.

After starting the season on fire, and peaking against the Minnesota Vikings, the Carolina Panthers pass rush has been eerily quiet the last few weeks against the St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and now the Atlanta Falcons. Though the Panthers have blown out these teams, quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Mike Glennon, and Matt Ryan respectively have had plenty of time in the pocket to dissect an average secondary.

All three quarterbacks did better than expected against the Panthers, and with few weapons. And today, with Tony Gonzalez the only threat in the pass game, he could not be stopped in the first half because Ryan had all day to find him. They had few pressures today and only notched one sack on Ryan.

Sure, the Panthers have gotten away with a weak pass rush the last three weeks, but can they still get away with it with Colin Kaepernick and Tom Brady looming next? Or can they turn up the heat again? Time will tell.

2) The Panthers can win without Cam Newton. One of the more publicized stats after the game was the fact the Panthers finally won a game in which Cam Newton has thrown 2 or more interceptions.

Prior, they had been 0-8.

This is a HUGE step for a team that seems to rise and fall on the shoulders of their quarterback. As he went, so did the win-loss record. But the Panthers finally turned a corner today, absorbing Newton’s two turnovers and still dominating the game.

In previous years, the weight of the team was on Newton to perform, and everything depended on him. Not so much anymore. Despite throwing two interceptions today, the Falcons failed to convert either into points. The defense picked him up, and forcing five turnovers, and scoring a touchdown. Every winning team needs to be able win games in more than one way, as Newton can not counted on to be lights out every week. Even Peyton Manning has a turnover-filled game now and then. But the fact that the Panthers can still win is a testament to the will and the talent of this playoff-contending team.

1) The NFC South is theirs for the taking. The Panthers win today, coupled with the New Orleans Saints loss, brought Carolina to within 1 game of the top spot in the NFC South. They have already beaten NFC South foes Tampa Bay and Atlanta, putting themselves in the position to play for the division on the line when the Saints and Panthers face each other later this year.

Also noteworthy was "the way" the Saints lost today. Playing against the Jets, starting quarterback Geno Smith had an abysmal game, only going 8 for 19, and throwing for a paltry 115 yards.

If the Jets can dismantle the Saints despite a poor game from their quarterback, and rely on heavy ball control, a strong run game and a stout defense, then the Jets have drawn up a blueprint for the Panthers to beat the Saints.

And oh, by the way, those just happen to be the three biggest strengths of the Carolina Panthers.

If the Panthers can run the table against the NFC South and play well against the AFC East, this division and a playoff berth is theirs for the taking.

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