The Carolina Panthers are just three games away from perfection and may have hit the Platonic ideal of a football team.
Quarterback Cam Newton threw three touchdowns, running back Jonathan Stewart scampered for 75 yards and the Panthers defense locked down a stagnant Atlanta Falcons offense en route to a 38-0 victory at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday.
The Panthers are 13-0 for the first time in franchise history. They're the first NFL team to win their first 13 games since the Green Bay Packers in 2011 and eighth overall in the Super Bowl era, per ESPN Stats & Info. Rawan Eewshah of BuzzFeed helped put a kibosh on a growing narrative:
Carolina didn't waste any time putting things out of reach, scoring touchdowns on each of its first three possessions. Newton hit wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for touchdown passes of 74 and 46 yards, while Jonathan Stewart bulled his way in from one yard out. The Panthers' 260 first-quarter yards were the most in any quarter in franchise history, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Frank Schwab of Yahoo Sports made a solid point:
Newton finished the game with 265 passing yards and three touchdowns. He ceded to backup Derek Anderson for a majority of the second half, as head coach Ron Rivera understandably looked to get his starters rest.
Carolina saw tight end Greg Olsen, linebacker Thomas Davis, Stewart and cornerback Bene Benwikere hobble off with injuries at various points. Aside from Benwikere, who broke his leg and is out for the season, the severity of the other players' ailments are unknown at this time. The string of injuries was enough to force Rivera's hand, though.
Newton nonetheless continued to put up MVP-type numbers. He's thrown for 13 touchdowns against one interception in his last four games, adding another score on the ground. The Atlanta native spoke this week about how special it is to play the Falcons, even in Carolina.
Newton told reporters Wednesday:
It's the home team. I grew up watching this team. I don't need anything to get me going outside of just the love for the game, but I kind of get excited when I play Atlanta. ... Something you've been watching since I first start playing the game at the age of seven. Sundays I would come home from church and the Atlanta Falcons would be on, dating back to Chris Chandler, Michael Vick. I saw the early games of Matt Ryan.
On the opposite side of the spectrum was Matt Ryan, whose nightmare 2015 season continued with another disappointing performance. Ryan completed 22 of 34 passes for 224 yard, but a majority of that production came in garbage time, and he turned the ball over two times. The former Pro Bowler has failed to throw multiple touchdowns in each of his last three games and is well on his way to setting a career high in turnovers.
“When you don’t make good decisions and put balls in a space they’re not supposed to be, good things aren’t going to happen,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday. “For me, it comes down to that.”
ESPN's Nate Ravitz made an eye-opening comparison:
Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman was held to 40 yards on 12 carries, adding three catches for 22 yards. Freeman has scored just once in his last six games after busting through with 10 touchdowns in his first six contests. The former Florida State star also hasn't topped 100 rushing yards since Oct. 25.
Overall, the Falcons have dropped their last six games and appear to be falling apart on both sides of the ball. They made a habit out of blowing close contests—they've dropped four one-score games in the past six weeks—and Sunday's performance was an all-around dumpster fire.
"We're not there yet,'' Falcons head coach Dan Quinn told reporters this week, "in terms of the mindset of finishing and the attitude of where we want to go."
ESPN's Mike Greenberg isn't wrong in his assessment:
It's a stark contrast to where the Falcons were through their first five games, sitting 5-0 and tied with Carolina atop the NFC South. At the time, the Panthers seemed like the far more likely team to collapse. Their offensive skill position players were viewed as among the worst in football, and their undefeated start was largely littered with wins over bad teams.
Eight wins later, and the Panthers are now arguably the Super Bowl favorites.
Quinn was both complimentary of the Falcons and frustrated with his own team's performance, per Andrew Hirsh of the Falcons' official website: “Carolina is the best the league has to offer right now, but our performance was totally unacceptable. Too many explosive plays defensively that put us way behind, and then (we) couldn’t convert on the opportunities offensively like we’re capable of. Got way behind, and that part was extremely disappointing.”
Quinn continued: "We didn’t keep our poise like we should in certain situation and penalties are always going to kill a drive—defensively, offensively. So, those are definitely things we need to clean up. We can’t beat ourselves.”
Newton seemed to be basking in his team's 13-0 start, per ESPN.com: "I believe right now it's our moment as Panthers. We try to seize it as much as possible."
He also highlighted goals for the remainder of the season: "Don't ease up on the gas. ... We want to be considered finishers."
Ryan was disappointed: "It was about as badly as we can play. That's frustrating."
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