The Carolina Panthers looked every inch the undefeated team that they are on Sunday, blistering Atlanta 38-0 on a day that could not have been more perfect for the home team and its fans.
On a sunny, 70-degree December afternoon, Carolina lost the coin toss and nothing else. It was 21-0 Carolina by the time the first quarter ended. The Panthers defense ended up with five sacks, four turnovers and the team’s first shutout during this extraordinary 13-0 start.
“I believe right now it’s our moment as Panthers,” said quarterback Cam Newton, who threw three touchdown passes, posted the highest quarterback rating of his career and led cheers from the sideline in the fourth quarter because Carolina was so far ahead. “We try to seize it as much as possible.”
The victory clinched a first-round playoff bye for Carolina. The Panthers will enjoy that the weekend of Jan. 9-10. Then they will play a home playoff game on Jan. 16 or 17 against the winner of an NFC playoff game from the weekend before (My best guess: The Panthers will have a playoff rematch with Seattle).
The Panthers also set a franchise record for regular-season wins Sunday. They are two games ahead of Arizona (11-2) with three to play in the quest for the No. 1 overall playoff seed in the NFC.
Unlike last week, when the Panthers had to rally several times to win at New Orleans, this game was never scary for Carolina from a scoring standpoint. The scares came because of injuries.
At one point or the other, six different Carolina stars – Newton, linebacker Luke Kuechly, tight end Greg Olsen, running back Jonathan Stewart, kicker Graham Gano and linebacker Thomas Davis – were checked out by the doctors or the training staff for possible injuries. All six of them seemed OK after the game, but nickel cornerback Bené Benwikere was lost for the rest of the season with a fractured leg. That will force another roster adjustment in the Carolina secondary.
But one of the most impressive parts of Sunday’s evisceration of the Falcons was the way the Panthers reserves stepped in for injured starters when necessary. Newton went out for one play after slightly hurting his left hand, and backup Derek Anderson stepped in and threw a 24-yard pass.
When Olsen went out, backup tight end Ed Dickson made a dazzling catch for a touchdown. When Stewart went out, backup running back Fozzy Whittaker had a 16-yard touchdown. When Kuechly went out, backup linebacker A.J. Klein immediately came in and caused a fumble.
Carolina (13-0) can become the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed next Sunday if the Panthers can win a road game against the New York Giants and Arizona (11-2) loses at Philadelphia.
The Falcons, who have lost six straight games, played their part by looking awful. If Carolina’s players were lions, Atlanta’s were dandelions.
“Our performance was totally unacceptable,” Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said. His team, once 5-0, is 6-7 and will play Carolina again on Dec. 27.
This one was over early in large part because the Panthers scored touchdowns on each of their first three drives. Wide receiver Ted Ginn caught only two passes all day, but one of them went for 74 yards and the other for 46, and both ended up as touchdowns. Newton (15-for-21, 265 yards, three scores) was so good early that he gave way to Anderson for the entire fourth quarter.
As Anderson was kneeling on offense to run out the clock in the final seconds, Newton started at one end zone leading cheers and then ran all the way to the other to do it again.
The quarterback put his hand to his ear in the classic “I can’t hear you!” signal. He did jumping jacks.
The joy rolled off him in waves, and why not?
The Panthers are 13-0 and playing the best they ever have. If you are a Panthers fan, you probably feel like you are living inside a dream right now.
Try not to wake up.