Cam Newton threw for a rather pedestrian 149 yards and two touchdowns against the Falcons Sunday, but the Carolina Panthers still edged Atlanta 21-20 to secure a first-round bye in the playoffs and take home the 2013 NFC South division title.
Newton did rush for a season-high 72 yards and extended seven drives by moving the chains with his legs, but Carolina’s Week 17 win was another example of dominance by defense.
The Panthers sacked Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan nine times, picked him off once and allowed the Falcons just 307 total yards on offense. Sunday was the 10th time this season Carolina held an opponent to under 350 yards of total offense.
Carolina’s defense has been stellar all season. The Panthers allowed 87.7 rushing yards per game (No. 2 in the NFL), 213 passing yards per game (No. 7) and 14.7 points per game (No. 2) en route to a 12-4 season.
Only three times did the Panthers give up 21 points or more in a game, and only once did an opposing team’s total yardage eclipse the 400-yard mark.
On offense, the Panthers and Newton have been both hot and cold.
Between Weeks 6 and 9, Carolina’s offense was humming, thumping teams by an average of 20.5 points per game. In each of those games, it scored at least 30 points. Newton had a coming-out party of sorts.
In Carolina’s Week 6 win over Minnesota, Newton threw for three touchdowns and landed 20 of 26 passes. The next week he completed 88.2 percent of his passes against the St. Louis Rams, and the following week, he was 23-for-32 for a 71.9 percent clip against Tampa Bay.
During two of those three games, Newton posted two career-best passer ratings. And best of all, he didn’t throw any interceptions or lose any fumbles.
But the next week against Atlanta, even though Carolina won by 24 points, Newton had a rough outing. He was picked off twice and completed just 62.2 percent of his passes. Even though he didn’t shine, the Panthers did.
Newton, however, has had his sizzling-hot moments.
Against the New England Patriots in Week 11, Newton hit Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds on the clock to win the game for Carolina. That was a huge fourth-quarter, come-from-behind moment for Newton. He did it again the following week with a last-minute pass to Greg Olsen to beat the Miami Dolphins.
In Week 16, Newton beat the New Orleans Saints with a 14-yard pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to play for his third last-minute, seal-the-deal win of the season.
Newton has been Mr. Clutch with ice water in his veins. He’s been Superman.
At other times…he’s been Clark Kent.
But that’s fine because no matter which version of Newton is on the field at any given time, Carolina’s defense can keep this team in the game long enough for Kent to find a phone booth and turn into Superman.
This defense has linebacker Luke Kuechly, a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine that’s getting better by the minute. It has bookend defensive ends in Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson that can wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Kuechly had 10 tackles against the Falcons Sunday and Hardy and Johnson combined for six sacks (Hardy with four, Johnson two).
Up front, Hardy and Johnson couldn’t get it done as easily without rookie Star Lotulelei in the middle of the defensive line. Kuechly would be lonely, and likely not quite as potent, without linebacker Thomas Davis in the middle of the defense.
Captain Munnerlyn leads a hodgepodge defensive backfield that lacks in name recognition, but not in firepower.
This defense is going to be the rock that this Panthers team needs to make a Super Bowl run. Newton will be the heart and soul of this franchise, and the team will desperately need him to put the offense in situations to win games. He may even have to finish the job on his own.
And Newton is confident that this team can get it done.
"We know we have to seize the moment," Newton told Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer. "And we're not done here yet."
But this Carolina team can’t win without its defense. From this point forward, as long as the defense plays like it has for the majority of the season, the Panthers will have an opportunity to win every game.
If the defense stumbles or takes a night off, it’s going to be tough for Newton and this offense to carry the weight of the Super Bowl dream.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.