Panthers exact revenge with 30-20 win over Falcons

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 10, 2012 

— Running off the field, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy shouted the same four-letter goodbye to Atlanta players that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan used in Week 4.

Inside the locker room nearly an hour after the game, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was still singing “Sweet Caroline,” the Neil Diamond song that plays at Bank of America Stadium after what have become rare home wins.

Whether the celebrations were R- or G-rated, the fact the Panthers were celebrating at all Sunday was a surprising twist in a disappointing season.

Newton became the first Panthers’ quarterback to run for 100 yards, and an injury-depleted defense backed up Hardy’s strong pregame words as the Panthers rolled past Atlanta 30-20.

The Panthers (4-9) snapped a five-game losing streak to the Falcons and won at home for the first time since Week 2 against New Orleans – a stretch of 84 days.

Atlanta (11-2), which clinched the NFC South last week, is trying to wrap up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. But they looked like they had little to play for Sunday.

“There was a lot of frustration going on between them. You could just tell,” Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said. “I don’t think they came to play. We did. We were hungry. I think we just wanted it more than they did.”

There was a lot of jawing last week between the teams, most of it coming from Mint Street. Hardy said regardless of the records, the Panthers were better than the Falcons, who came from behind in the final minute to beat Carolina 30-28 in Atlanta.

Several Panthers’ players were upset with Ryan for yelling, “Get the (expletive) off our field,” at the end of the first game. Hardy used the same expression at the end of Sunday’s game, captured by a cameraman for a Charlotte TV station.

Hardy, who had one of the Panthers’ two sacks on Ryan, was gone when reporters were allowed in the Panthers’ locker room. His teammates were left to address his comments.

“It’s tough to say that we’re just overall better than them because they’re (11-2),” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “But I like his confidence and I’m going to roll with him. I felt like last time, we had those guys but we let it slip away.”

Said Johnson: “You talk like that, you write that check. He cashed it. That’s all you can do. You put it out there, you just back it up. And he did it.”

A week after losing at Kansas City, the league’s worst team, the Panthers had their way with the team tied with Houston for the best record.

The Panthers scored on their first five possessions to take a 23-0 lead. They were dominant in the first half, outgaining Atlanta 270 to 35 in total yardage and holding a nearly 18-minute edge in time of possession.

“The way we played today, you won’t beat anybody in this league,” Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “That’s pretty much my critique of the game.”

Graham Gano’s third field goal of the first half was the Panthers’ first score in the final two minutes of either half this season and gave them a 16-0 halftime lead. They added to it in the third quarter when Newton faked a handoff to DeAngelo Williams on a zone-read play, and jetted down the left sideline for a 72-yard touchdown.

It was the fifth-longest run by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era, and helped push Newton over the century mark. Newton, who was 23-of-35 passing for 287 yards and two touchdowns, became the first player in NFL history to finish a game with 250-plus passing yards, 100-plus rushing yards and at least one rushing and passing touchdown.

Over the past six games, Newton has accounted for 15 touchdowns and only two turnovers. He’s thrown 119 passes without an interception.

“I don’t want to say I’m in the zone,” said Newton, repeating a reporter’s question. “I think this whole offense is clicking. We just have to connect the dots. When the offense is on, the defense has to step up. And when the defense is on, the offense has to pick it up – and special teams, also.”

Sunday was the Panthers’ most complete game of Ron Rivera’s two-year tenure, and only the third time they’ve beaten a team with a winning record under Rivera.

The Panthers’ first punt came with 2:45 left in the third quarter, and the Falcons padded their stats when Carolina was in a prevent defense. At least it looked like a prevent: It was hard to know considering the Panthers were down to their fourth and fifth safeties, and using a cornerback (James Dockery) who spent the week on the scout team.

“This shows exactly what we’re capable of. That’s the sad part because those are the same guys,” Rivera said. “In fact, some (are) different guys. Because of the injuries, some of the younger guys got more opportunities and did some great things. We are capable of big things.”

But with only three games left, it could be too little, too late for Rivera.

“It was outstanding to put a whole game together. It’s unfortunate it has taken us 10 games later to figure it out,” wideout Steve Smith said. “But, you know, we’re getting things slowly but surely.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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