Cam Newton wanted more.
The game was clinched. So was the Carolina Panthers’ second straight playoff season – the Panthers will host Arizona in a playoff game at 4:35 p.m. Saturday.
With 2 minutes, 41 seconds to go in Sunday’s game, Carolina led Atlanta by the shocking score of 34-3. About the only fans left in the Georgia Dome were 5,000 Panthers supporters dressed in black and blue and yelling, “Let’s go, Panthers!”
During a timeout, Newton ran around the field, waving his arms up and down and asking for more.
More noise. More fun. More everything.
Now, he and the Panthers will get all of that. This will mark the first time in Carolina’s history that the team has made it to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, and also the first time any team has won the NFC South two years in a row.
This playoff berth seemed nearly impossible before the Panthers pulled off a December to remember. Carolina started the month at 3-8-1 and with a six-game losing streak.
But then Carolina won four straight games, riding a revived defense and playing its best football at exactly the right time.
So it was celebration time Sunday night in the Panthers locker room. As media members entered to begin their interviews, Panthers fullback Mike Tolbert turned up the music and yelled: “Come on in! Join the party!”
Cornerback Josh Norman proclaimed: “This defense is unbelievable. Did you see the way we were flying around? I’m on Cloud 25!”
Newton was late getting to the locker room. After the game, he was headed toward his teammates when the “We want Cam! We want Cam!” cheers pulled him back.
Newton turned around and ran about half the length of the stadium, high-fiving all the Panthers supporters who had grabbed front-row seats vacated by frustrated Atlanta fans. The quarterback even dismantled one barricade on his own to slap a few more palms.
Newton’s December included a car crash that left him thankful to be alive, and you could tell he was very thankful Sunday. He threw for one touchdown and ran for another, but the bigger story was the Panthers’ defense.
Roman Harper had a 31-yard interception return for a touchdown that pushed a 10-3 Carolina second-quarter lead to 17-3. Thomas Davis’s 33-yard fumble return set up another TD only minutes later.
Then came Tre Boston’s 84-yard interception return in the third quarter, which made it 34-3 and sent a lot of Falcons fans scurrying out of the Georgia Dome before the fourth quarter even began.
It was the first time in their 20-year history that the Panthers have had two defensive scores in the same game. Carolina added six sacks of frustrated Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who was under duress all afternoon.
The Panthers played similarly well three weeks ago, in New Orleans, when their four-game winning streak began with a 41-10 whipping of the Saints.
As in the New Orleans game, Carolina played so well in the first half that the Atlanta game was basically decided after 30 minutes. In both cases, Carolina led 24-3 at halftime and the home team was booed off the field.
“The guys played out of their mind today,” Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said of his teammates.
By the end of the day, Carolina had made the playoffs, albeit with a losing record of 7-8-1.
“The beautiful thing is the record doesn’t matter,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
And he’s right about that. The records are thrown out for the playoffs. Carolina is one of 12 teams left standing in the NFL. The other 20 have closed up shop for the season, and a number of them (possibly including the Falcons) will fire their head coaches Monday.
Now comes the even harder part for Carolina: winning a home playoff game.
The Panthers have whiffed on their last two tries, losing by 20 points to Arizona following the 2008 season (that was Jake Delhomme’s six-turnover game) and by 13 points last season to San Francisco (when goal-line offense and silly penalties undid the Panthers).
This time, Arizona would seem to be the ideal opponent, given that any team the Panthers faced would have at least 11 wins. The Cardinals will be playing a backup quarterback and have lost four of their last six games. At one time sporting the NFL’s top record at 9-1, Arizona enters the playoffs at 11-5 but as a No. 5 seed after losing its division to Seattle. Carolina is the No. 4 seed.
“We’ve still got a sour taste in our mouths from what happened last year in the playoffs,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said.
There was no sour taste Sunday, just sweetness. Tolbert finally decided it was time to turn off the music and take a shower.
“Excuse me!” he crowed as he maneuvered through the crowd. “Two-time NFC South champs coming through!”
It seemed like the Panthers were headed for the showers themselves in November – permanently. Now they will play in the postseason for the second straight time.
The Panthers haven’t actually won a playoff game since the 2005 season. But this team? After this month?
It may just have a few surprises left.