Youthful Panthers coming off best showing
The Carolina Panthers have just four players over the age of 30, and more than half the roster (27) is 25 or younger.
It didn’t show on Sunday, when the Panthers used eight rookies and 10 second-year players but still emerged with their best win of the year.
The Falcons, fighting for the top seed in the NFC, lost for just the second time all season, falling to 11-2.
The Panthers didn’t look like a 4-9 team in their 30-20 home win.
Carolina pitched a first-half shutout (16-0) against one of the league’s elite offenses, then hit a couple home runs after halftime and were never seriously challenged.
Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly had a game-high 16 tackles, and now leads the NFL with 130 in 13 games.
“We played great as a whole team and now we know what we’re capable of,” Kuechly said. “We haven’t been able to do it the whole year but now we’ve played great on offense, played great on defense and the special team played great, too.”
Panthers QB Cam Newton was terrific, throwing for 287 yards and two TDs while rushing for a career-high 116 yards — including a 72-yard TD run that put his team ahead 23-0 in the third quarter.
Newton, who had 11 turnovers in his first seven games, has gone four straight games without a turnover.
Five-time Pro Bowler Steve Smith caught seven passes for 109 yards, and now has 60 receptions for 999 yards with three games remaining.
Smith has put together back-to-back 100-yard receiving games, and is on the brink of his seventh 1,000-yard season.
With Jonathan Stewart out, DeAngelo Williams is getting a lot more touches. Williams gained just 56 yards on 17 carries Sunday, and turned a screen pass into a 53-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Newton, Smith and Williams are Carolina’s most explosive weapons, and all three played significant roles in the win.
Robert Griffin III or Andrew Luck will get the NFL’s rookie of the year award, but Kuechly is also a great candidate.
Kuechly is the only player in the NFL averaging double-digit tackles per game, and his three fumble recoveries rank No. 1 among the top 50 tacklers in the league.
Outside linebacker Thomas Davis had seven tackles Sunday, and stood out in coverage with an interception and a pass deflection.
“He made a great play on it,” Kuechly said of Davis’ pick. “When we can get a turnover in good field position, that really helps our offense out.”
Carolina’s defense bent a lot in the second half, but made Atlanta chew a lot of clock with underneath throws — and never got beat deep.
Atlanta’s longest throw covered 21 yards.
Falcons QB Matt Ryan threw for 342 yards, but was playing catch up the entire time he was on the field. His running game was held to 35 yards on just 11 attempts.
The Panthers entered the season with a suspect secondary, and that was before cornerback Chris Gamble and safety Sherrod Martin were placed on injured reserve.
Carolina had to dig even deeper down the depth chart when starting safety Haruki Nakamura left the game in the second half with a groin injury.
On more than one series, Carolina’s secondary consisted of Josh Thomas and James Dockery at cornerback with DJ Campbell and Colin Jones at safety.
With the possible exception of Thomas, none of those guys were expected to see the field on defense this season.