Eleven quick thoughts on the Carolina Panthers 20-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons:
1. The Falcons tested Carolina’s secondary early courtesy of Julio Jones
Cornerback James Bradberry slipped on the very first play of the game and fell down, ceding a catch of 34 yards to Jones. Later in the drive, Jones cut inside and was picked up by safety Kurt Coleman. Jones got past Coleman and had a step on him heading into the end zone, but quarterback Matt Ryan’s pass attempt was overthrown.
2. Carolina’s early return to the things that don’t work
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Without former top receiver Kelvin Benjamin, Carolina had Devin Funchess as its No. 1 and lined up rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel opposite Funchess to start the game. But the series resulted in a three-and-out with a repetitive first-snap handoff to running back Jonathan Stewart, a pass to Funchess over the middle that was broken up in tight coverage and a collapsed pocket that forced quarterback Cam Newton to scramble short of the first down.
3. Early fumbles hurt Panthers
Stewart fumbled twice in the first quarter, both forced by Falcons safety Keanu Neal and recovered by Atlanta. After the first recovery, Atlanta marched downfield and scored easily as Mohamed Sanu stutter-stepped on an out-route from the slot at the Carolina 6-yard line to get by Daryl Worley.
Stewart had two fumbles and four carries in the first quarter. He finished the game with just 21 yards on 11 carries.
4. Chunk passing plays
Ryan and his offense gouged Carolina early, allowing for a 10-0 scoring run in the first quarter. Bradberry gave up passes of 34 yards, 21 yards and 15 yards as the Panthers were kept on their heels.
But Carolina had its own answer at receiver in Funchess, who played a physical game with five catches for 86 yards (many after the catch), including a 33-yard long.
5. An first-quarter bright spot at ... punter?
Michael Palardy continues to be an asset at punter for Carolina. A 53-yard punt in the first quarter downed the ball at Atlanta’s 13-yard line, and a second-quarter punt downed the ball at the Falcons’ 3-yard line – giving Ryan long fields to work against both times. Through the second quarter of Sunday’s game, Palardy had a ball downed inside the opposing 10-yard line three times in two weeks.
Palardy also pinned the Falcons within the 20-yard line after Atlanta scored to bring the game within three points. The position helped the defense stop the Falcons and sealed the win.
6. When it works, it really works
Carolina successfully executed the same option pitch the team had previously fumbled against Chicago to score its first touchdown of the game.
Newton faked a handoff to Stewart in a loaded box at the goal line, and instead pulled back and pitched with his left hand to a wide-open McCaffrey. The touchdown was McCaffrey’s third of the season, and first rushing score.
They also followed up the pitch play with some trickeration on their next drive. A deconstructed flea-flicker to Curtis Samuel went for 14 yards, while a reverse play was carried by Russell Shepard for 11 yards. The drive ended in a field goal.
7. Mike Adams turns the tide
Panthers safety Adams recorded his second interception in as many games to give Carolina a huge momentum shift in the second quarter. Adams picked off a ball meant for tight end Austin Hooper and returned it 40 yards to set up a go-ahead Panthers touchdown.
Carolina went on to score 20 unanswered points in the second and third quarters.
8. Cam Newton carries the run game
In the first half alone, Newton shouldered nearly the entirety of Carolina’s rushing offense with 74 yards and a touchdown to Carolina’s 119 net rushing yards. Carolina running backs have only scored two of the team’s six rushing touchdowns through week 9.
Carolina entered the game ranked second in the NFL in sacks, but their first of the game didn’t come until the end of the third quarter.
Defensive end Wes Horton pursued and hit Ryan, whose receivers were all covered downfield. Defensive end Mario Addison followed up Horton’s sack with one of his own on the next play for a 6-yard loss. Addison edged closer to team sack leader Julius Peppers (7.5) with his 6.5th sack of the season.
10. Jones drops a potential game-changer
In the fourth quarter, Jones became the first receiver to have a 100-yard game against the Panthers’ defense in 2017.
But on fourth down and seven Ryan uncorked a perfect pass to a wide-open Jones, who bobbled it in the end zone and dropped it – essentially sealing the game in Carolina’s favor.
11. Defense holds, Panthers win
After Atlanta rattled off a two-minute, 92-yard scoring drive to come within three points of Carolina with 3:31 to play, the Panthers' offense went three and out after Newton missed a throw while trying to find Samuel on third down and long.
Carolina's defense then held Ryan and the offense to four consecutive stops to get the ball back on downs, and sealed the game.