This week, they embodied the motto, "NFC South Champions."
The story of the game was supposed to be about the final game of future Hall-of-Famer Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez. Instead, Greg "Kraken" Hardy stole the headlines, tallying a team-high 4 sacks, on a day where the defense would sack Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan 9 times. This constant pressure would lead to a Panthers win, 21-20. After beating Atlanta today, the Carolina Panthers were officially crowned NFC South Champions, rewarded with a first round bye and home game in the playoffs.
The Turning Point: For 99.9% of today’s game, the game hung in the balance, and could have swung in either Atlanta or Carolina’s favor. It came down to the game’s last drive, with the Falcons in possession, a minute to go and having no timeouts. The Falcons were down 20-21, needing a mere FG to win the game. Sound familiar?
Yep, that was also last year’s script.
The last drive started similarly to last year’s last drive in Atlanta, with Matt Ryan dissecting the Panthers defense with pinpoint passing and quick sideline outs to stop the clock. 4 straight completions would have Ryan cover 25 yards of ground, gaining 2 first downs, and stopping the clock twice.
Then a brutal miscue doomed the Falcons.
With Ryan still calling out the play, the Falcons center hiked the ball into no man’s land. Falcons running back Jason Snelling would pounce on it, but with the clock ticking, and 15 yards lost, they would not recover. In an attempt to spike the ball, Atlanta was called for an illegal shift, resulting in a loss of more yards and a 10 second runoff. With little time left and still a whole field to cover, the Falcons were stopped, the clock ticked zero, and the celebrations started in a crowd that had a heavy "Panther Nation" presence.
The Good: How about that defense? Just when you think there is nothing better you can say about this "Black and Blue Crew," they go and put on a performance like the one they had today. Headlined by Hardy’s 4 sacks, the defense amassed 9 (!) total sacks and added an interception for a touchdown to boot. On a day where Cam was not his best with his arm, the defense more than covered for him.
The Bad: Though the win was tasty, the beginning of the game was not so sweet for both the offense and the defense. The defense would give up a touchdown on the Falcons’ first drive of the game, the first time this year Carolina would give up a touchdown on the opponent’s first possession.
The offense struggled to start as well. After failing to convert a single 3rd down last week, another 3 and out to start this game was not exactly comforting to Panthers fans. The struggles would continue for the first quarter and a half, looking completely out of sync. Newton would throw an interception and miss a couple of receivers who were wide open, Brandon LaFell and Domenik Hixon would drop passes, and the normally reliable DeAngelo Williams would turn the ball over. Williams took a pass for 40+ yards, only to fumble the ball in the red zone.
If the Panthers hope to to make a deep run in this year’s playoffs, they will need this offense to roll like they did during the 8 game win streak and avoid slow starts like the one they had today.
Panthers Offensive MVP: Despite two turnovers and an "off" passing day, Newton carried this offense yet again like he has done all season. After a slow start, he converted third down after third down on the ground. Newton ran for a season-high 70 yards, many of them coming on third downs. And when they got into the red zone, he converted both opportunities into touchdowns. Sure, his numbers were not as high as those in the last two years, but he has flashed something even better: the ability to close out games.
Panthers Defensive MVP: What’s "Kraken?" Greg Hardy, that’s what. Fresh off his first Pro Bowl selection, Hardy has amassed 7 sacks in the last 2 weeks alone. Everytime the Panthers needed a key stop, Hardy was in Matt Ryan’s face. Today, he would tally 4 sacks and tie Kevin Greene’s single season franchise sack record.
Panthers Who Struggled: DeAngelo Williams and ball security, run blocking
Notable injuries: Ben Hartsock left the game with an injury.
Tweets of the Game
@salmingoCSR Panthers sure don't help my smoking habit that is for sure.— Cassie (@Cassandra1584) December 29, 2013
And after that pick-6, some of you may appreciate this Breaking Bad reference:
Mr. White Broke Bad— Randy Inman (@NFLPanthersSB) December 29, 2013
GIF of the Game
Tolbert smashes through two Falcon defenders, showing that it isn't easy to tackle a bowling ball.
The Panthers are in the driver’s seat, earning a 1st round playoff bye. All we know for now is that they will host a game at home in the second round, with the opponent to be determined. Rest up and gear up for the playoffs, Panthers fans!
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