The Carolina Panthers may have finally found a formula for success in 2009: Chaos. Steve Smith called the Panthers' no-huddle offense they displayed on Sunday "controlled chaos," saying that the fast paced ever-changing game plan kept the Falcons' defenders guessing all afternoon. Jake Delhomme handled the two-minute like offense masterfully, as he usually does and completed his third straight game without a turnover.
Speaking of Smith, the frustrated wideout caught his second and third touchdown passes of the year on Sunday, both four-yard pases from Delhomme. Delhomme finished the day 15-of-24 for 195 yards and those two touchdowns, completing 62.5 percent of his passes and heading home with a quarterback rating of 115.8. It was Delhomme's first game this season that saw him end up with a quarterback rating of over 100 after accomplishing the feat six times in 2008.
The Panthers got their usual healthy dose of double trouble, rushing for 185 yards on 34 carries complimented by a pair of Jonathan Stewart touchdowns. Stewart finished the game with 82 yards on 11 carries while DeAngelo Williams recorded 92 yards on 19 carries. It was Stewart's 45-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter that sealed the game for the Panthers.
The win did not come easy for Carolina, as they dealt with a pesky Falcons offense all day. Michael Turner rushed for 111 yards on just nine carries before leaving with a high ankle sprain in the second quarter that could force him to miss multiple games.
Jason Snelling filled in nicely for Turner in the absence of Jerious Norwood, gaining 61 yards on 18 carries the rest of the way. It was obvious that the Panthers' run defense missed Thomas Davis' production.
The Panthers were able to head to the locker room at halftime with a 21-10 lead thanks to an offense that was performing like a unit not seen in recent memory in Carolina. That seemingly well-oiled machine petered out in the second half, as the Panthers would tally just seven points in the second half while staving off a Falcons' rally.
The Falcons' first three drives in the second half were all 10 plays or more and took up a total of over 17 minutes, but yielded only 10 points. Atlanta burst out of the gates, driving 74 yards to the Carolina six-yard line before being stopped in their tracks and being forced to settle for a field goal that made it 21-13. The Panthers tried to return the favor on their next possession, but John Kasay had his second field goal of the year blocked on a 51-yard attempt.
That would start the Falcons off with good field position that they would capitalize on, embarking on an 11-play, 59-yard drive that ended with Matt Ryan's only touchdown pass of the day, a three-yard toss to tight end Justin Peelle just as the fourth quarter was getting underway that brought the Falcons to within two points at 21-19. The ensuing two-point conversion was snuffed out by a solid tackle by Chris Gamble on a swing pass to Snelling.
The Panthers could not get much going on their next drive and were forced to punt it away. Jason Baker made the first of two huge plays on the day when he pinned the Falcons at their own four to start a critical drive. Ryan completed a third and 11 from his own three on his way to leading Atlanta down the field into field goal range. Elam lined up for a 34-yard field goal, but mistimed the play and pulled the ball badly to the left, allowing Carolina to maintain their two-point lead.
Still, the Panthers offense could not get off the ground, going three and out and being forced to punt once more. Enter Baker once more, this time from a more defensive position as he represented the last man to beat for the Falcons' Eric Weems, who was on his way to the end zone following poor punt coverage when Baker shoved him and sent him flying into the sideline at the Panthers' 49-yard line with just under four minutes to go in the game.
The Falcons had yet another chance to take the lead, but Ryan would toss his second interception of the day on the first play of the drive. Richard Marshall picked off the overthrown ball at the Panthers' 21 and carried it to the 49. After two short runs by Williams, Stewart burst through a hole created by the young Mackenzy Bernadeau and sprinted to the endzone for the 45-yard game-clinching touchdown.
The victory did not come without a price for Carolina, as they lost left tackle Jordan Gross to a broken left ankle in the second quarter. Travelle Wharton moved over to left tackle in his absence and Bernadeau took over at left guard. Wharton was whistled for a holding penalty in his first play at left tackle and would get called for another later in the game. The loss of Gross marks the second key cog the Panthers have lost in as many weeks after losing Thomas Davis in New Orleans a week ago.
Sherrod Martin recorded his team-leading third interception of the year in just his third career start Sunday, setting up a Panthers' touchdown late in the first half.
Tyrell Sutton lined up for every Panthers' kickoff return, however Atlanta's Michael Koenen never gave him a chance to do anything with the ball, recording touchbacks each time he kicked off. He also rendered the punt return game useless, as Captain Munnerlyn was unable to attempt a return on either of Koenen's two punts.
The Panthers' win, mixed in with a few other NFC losses, means that the playoff outlook for Carolina is starting to become a little less murky. At 4-5, the Panthers are now just one game out of the final Wild Card spot. If other top NFC contenders continue to falter while the Panthers continue to heat up, the outlook on the last month of the season could quickly turn from dull and gloomy to exciting and hopeful.
Carolina seems to have found lightning in a bottle with the no-huddle offense and should stick with what works as they continue to try to make up for their poor play out of the gate.
Let's take a look at the positives and negatives from an uplifting Panthers victory.
/\ Jake Delhomme
Jake has always been confident and relaxed in the two-minute drill. It's now apparent that that confidence holds true when you extend the two-minute drill to the 60 minute drill. Call me crazy, but at sometimes on Sunday, Jake looked a lot like a fellow in the midwest who wears number 18 and sports a horseshoe on the side of his helmet.
For three weeks in a row now, Delhomme has been mostly effective and turnover free, leading to a level of play that goes way beyond what we saw the beginning of the year. The quarterback is the leader of every team and with Jake playing with a renewed sense of ability and confidence, the sky is the limit for Carolina.
/\ Muhsin Muhammed
"Moose" made it known publicly earlier in the week that he would like the Panthers to become more agressive in the passing game, insisting that he and his fellow receivers, along with Jake, had the ability to turn their early production around. He backed that statement up with an exclamation point on Sunday in his return from a knee injury that saw him miss two games, catching six passes for 91 yards to lead the team in both categories.
/\ The Jake-to-Smitty Connection
One of, if not the all-time fan favorite quarterback-to-receiver connection in Panthers history seems to be back in sync after a rocky-at-best start to the season. Jake found Smith twice in the end zone on Sunday in Jake's first multi-touchdown game of the year. If this duo can get on the same page again and start producing the electrifying plays they have always been known for, this Panthers team could turn into a dark horse in December.
When the Panthers offense sputtered in the second half, the defense picked up the slack. Although the Falcons were able to sustain drives on their first three possesions, they came away with only 10 points and were twice halted on long drives and forced to attempt field goals. Carolina also recorded two interceptions, both of which came on the first play of drives and both of which set up Panther touchdowns.
/\ Chris Gamble
Gamble was a busy man on Sunday afternoon, recording 25 percent of his season tackles with eight. He also stuffed Jason Snelling on the two-point conversion that would have tied the game, which almost makes up for a pass interference call he received in the second quarter on a fourth down play that would eventually allow the Falcons' to score their first touchdown of the game. After recording seven tackles during a four game stretch, Gamble has 14 in his last two games.
/\ Jonathan Stewart
Stewie is back on the right side of The Elevator this week after his second two-touchdown performance in the last three weeks. Including his 45-yard game winner. Stewart averaged over seven yards per carry on 11 attempts. If you take that run away, he was still averaging almost four yards a clip.
/\ DeAngelo Williams
Another solid performance from the other half of double trouble as well, racking up just shy of 100 yards on 19 carries. Williams has solidified himself as one of the top backs in the league in the last few weeks, returning to the form that produced his breakout season in 2008. DeAngelo is currently tied for fourth in rushing yards in the NFL and ranks fifth in touchdowns.
/\ Sherrod Martin
The rookie has three starts and three picks, need I say more? Martin has brought a nose for the ball to the free safety position that Charles Godfrey just didn't seem to have and may retain the starting job when Godfrey is healthy if he continues to play at a high level.
The coaching staff came up with another excellent game plan to expose the opponent's weakness, in this case the Falcons pass defense. They may have stumbled upon something in the no-huddle offense and should look to incorporate that scheme into future gameplans, especially against formidable defenses like the Patriots and the Jets.
\/ Injury bug
The Panthers are catching fire at the right time, but it will be hard to maintain the flame if they lose too many more key pieces to injury. After losing two potential Pro Bowlers in consecutive weeks, it is imperative that the remaining starters stay healthy.
\/ Special Teams
Another woeful day for special teams was kept out of the limelight by Jason Baker's potentially game-saving tackle of Eric Weems on a punt return late in the game. The Panthers allowed another field goal to be blocked and also allowed another punt to be down inside the five when the returner could have made the fair catch outside of the 10. With the Panthers entering do-or-die territory down the stretch, special teams can not be the weak link that leads to a game changing play.
\/ Putting games away
Aside from the Arizona game, the Panthers have had to hold their breath until the end of every victory they have recorded this season. A late bootleg from Delhomme, let them exhale against Washington, a late touchdown in Tampa did the same and now the clinching 45-yard Stewart dash has done the trick against Atlanta. To re-enter the playoff conversation on a serious level, the Panthers need to take it to someone and be able to enjoy a victory in the fourth quarter rather than scramble to save it.
The Panthers are being outscored 49-14 in the second halves of games in the month of November. Opponents are making adjustments at half time, but it doesn't seem like the Panthers are doing too much of that.
\/ Travelle Wharton
I don't want to make too much of a big deal about Wharton's mistakes seeing as how he was moved out to tackle in an emergency situation after not practicing at that spot for some time. However, with Jordan Gross gone for the year, Wharton will be the big man in charge of Delhomme's blind side. Wharton was whistled for a holding call on the first play from scrimmage after Gross went out and racked up another before the game was over.
For all intents and purposes, that's two holding calls in one half, meaning he'd average four per game. There's no way the Panthers can absorb that and continue their improved offensive play. Wharton will need to have a good, albeit short, week of practice and get accustomed to the tackle spot again inside a small window of time.
The Panthers will have a short week this week, playing Thursday night on NFL Network against the Miami Dolphins who will visit Charlotte in the regular season for the first time since 1998. The game is huge for both teams, as both are resting at 4-5 and looking to make a push towards the playoffs.
The Panthers will be looking to contain the Wildcat that has brought the Dolphins to prominence in the last couple of years. Former Carolina offensive coordinator Dan Henning is the wizard behind the curtain for the Dolphins and Henning will face his former team in the regular season for the first time since leaving after the 2006 season.
The Panthers have never beaten the Dolphins in the regular season, one of only two teams that hold that distinction (Houston is the other).