Running off the field, Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy shouted the same four-letter goodbye to Atlanta players that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan used Sept. 30.
Inside the locker room nearly an hour after the game, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton still was 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 Hardys 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 Sept. 16 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 the Falcons looked like they had little to play for Sunday.
There was a lot of frustration going on between them. You could just tell, Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said. I dont 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 during 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 Sundays game, captured by a Charlotte TV cameraman.
Hardy, who had one of the Panthers two sacks on Ryan, was gone when reporters were allowed into the locker room. His teammates were left to address his comments.
Its tough to say that were just overall better than them because theyre 11-2, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. But I like his confidence and Im 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. Thats 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 leagues 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 during the first half, outgaining Atlanta 270 to 35 and holding a nearly 18-minute edge in time of possession.
The way we played today, you wont beat anybody in this league, Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. Thats pretty much my critique of the game.
Graham Ganos third field goal of the game was the Panthers first score during the final two minutes of either half this season and gave them a 16-0 halftime lead. They added to it during 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 during the Super Bowl era, and helped push Newton past 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, he has accounted for 15 touchdowns and two turnovers. He has thrown 119 passes without an interception.
I dont want to say Im in the zone, said Newton, repeating a reporters 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 Riveras two-year tenure, and only the third time theyve beaten a team with a winning record under Rivera.
The Panthers first punt came with 2 minutes, 45 seconds 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 were capable of. Thats 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. Its unfortunate it has taken us 10 games later to figure it out, wideout Steve Smith said. But, you know, were getting things slowly but surely.
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