The battle between the two most recent NFC champions proved to be a physical slugfest in which Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers emerged with a 20-17 win over the struggling Atlanta Falcons. While Newton dazzled with his dual-threat abilities that helped him earn the MVP award in 2015, reigning MVP Matt Ryan struggled for most of the afternoon. Here are five things we learned from Carolina’s gritty win over Atlanta.
Cam Newton is the best ballcarrier on the Panthers
Even on a team with two former first-round running backs, Newton proved that he is the best ballcarrier on the Panthers. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder has turned the clock back to his Auburn days when he routinely tore up defenses with his legs. After registering zero rushing yards on seven carries in Week 5 against Detroit, Newton has been on a tear as a runner.
In Sunday’s victory, Newton finished with a game-high 86 rushing yards on just nine carries, including an impressive 34-yard run where he showed off uncanny speed for a big man. The three-time Pro Bowler did a ton of damage on read-option plays and added his fourth rushing touchdown of the season. With top target Kelvin Benjamin gone, do not be surprised if Newton continues to be utilized as a runner while the passing game develops.
Panthers’ passing game is a work in progress
Speaking of the passing game, the post-Benjamin era did not get off to a great start. While Devin Funchess did haul in five of his seven targets for 86 yards, the rest of Carolina’s receiver group was a major letdown. In fact, no other wide receiver recorded a single catch.
Rookie running backs Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel did combine for eight receptions, but the duo managed to turn those receptions into just 51 yards. Carolina needs its dynamic duo to make more explosive plays and pick up yards after the catch. If not, Carolina will be far too one-dimensional down the stretch.
Jonathan Stewart struggles with ball security
The longest-tenured offensive player on the Panthers may have watched his time as the team’s leading ballcarrier come to an end on Sunday. Stewart, who joined the team in 2008 as a first-round pick out of Oregon, ran for just 21 yards on 11 carries.
However, the 10-year veteran’s fumbling problem could cost him playing time. Stewart fumbled on Carolina’s second drive, setting up an eight-play touchdown drive by Atlanta. On the Panthers’ ensuing possession, Stewart lost yet another fumble. Though the Falcons could not capitalize, putting the ball on the ground twice is unacceptable for a team whose approach is predicated on a strong running game and tough defense.
Panthers’ defense is playoff-caliber
Despite a lackluster offense, the Panthers have legitimate playoff hopes thanks to their top-10 defense. Sunday marked the fifth time this season that Carolina has held the opposing team to 17 points or fewer. Luke Kuechly (11 tackles) spearheads a physical, tough unit that can stop the run and the pass.
Edge rushers Mario Addison and Wes Horton each had a sack, and the rest of the front seven did an excellent job in limiting the Falcons to just 53 rushing yards. If the defense keeps up this level of performance, the Panthers will be in the playoff mix the rest of the way.
Falcons still suffering Super Bowl hangover
Make no mistake about it, the Falcons’ biggest stars are not playing up to their 2016 standards. Ryan did throw for 313 yards and two touchdowns, but he also threw his seventh pick in eight games and missed a few key throws. Julio Jones managed to snag just half of his 12 targets and committed an egregious drop on a surefire touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter.
Devonta Freeman, who signed a five-year, $41.25 million extension this offseason, ran for just 46 yards and averaged just 4.5 yards on four receptions. After leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks in 2016, Vic Beasley Jr. is on pace for just eight after adding one Sunday afternoon. Atlanta’s highest-profile players need to shake off the Super Bowl hangover if this team has any shot at a playoff spot.
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