To be undefeated in the NFL in December means you’ve been relatively healthy throughout the season, and especially healthy at key positions.
The Carolina Panthers improved to 13-0 on Sunday in the 38-0 victory over Atlanta, but not without a handful of injury scares for star players.
Cam Newton had a wrist injury, Jonathan Stewart had a foot injury, Greg Olsen had a knee injury and Luke Kuechly was hobbled by an ankle injury. But by game’s end, the quartet seemed to be OK, all things considered.
The most concerning injury of all came to second-year cornerback Bené Benwikere, who broke his leg in the fourth quarter on an attempted tackle. Benwikere is done for the season, and his injury could throw the Panthers’ secondary rotation into flux.
Newton finished with the highest passer rating of his career at 153.3 – just shy of the perfect 158.3. Stewart rushed 10 times for 75 yards and is just shy of 1,000 yards this season.
And Kuechly’s third-quarter interception was the fourth of this season. His 11 career interceptions are the most by any linebacker since he came into the league in 2012.
The game was Carolina’s most thorough throttling of an NFC South opponent in team history.
“It’s our moment, and we want to seize it as much as possible,” Newton said.
The Panthers, who have won an NFC-record 17 in a row in the regular season, have now locked up a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs. Because the Arizona Cardinals would own the potential tiebreaker because of their NFC record, the Panthers would need a win next week against the Giants and a Cardinals loss or tie to secure the No. 1 overall seed.
Three who mattered
Kawann Short: With two sacks, the third-year defensive tackle is up to nine on the season. That’s the most in a season for a Panthers’ defensive tackle and it leads the NFL this season at that position.
Ted Ginn Jr.: Ginn’s 120 receiving yards were the first time he went over 100 yards since 2008 and the most in his career since he had 175 in a 2008 game.
Josh Norman: Just like last year, Norman held Atlanta’s Julio Jones in check. Jones finished with seven catches for 88 yards, but 46 of them came when Jones was being covered by Benwikere, who was injured on the play.
▪ Newton’s second-quarter touchdown pass to Ed Dickson was about as tight a throw as you’ll see. Newton got it past the helmet of a lineman, around the hand of a linebacker and into the hands of Dickson for the 4-yard score.
▪ Referee Tony Corrente’s mic remained on during the 2-minute warning. He could be heard joking with other officials that “all we needed was 4 inches” and then they’d go home. It was in reference to quarterback Derek Anderson not getting the fourth-down conversion earlier.
▪ The Panthers finished with five sacks on the day. They got to Matt Ryan three times and backup Sean Renfree twice.
▪ Newton ran into umpire Dan Ferrell on a scramble early in the first quarter. Newton was hit late by O’Brien Schofield, but referee Tony Corrente threw the flag despite Ferrell being closest to the play. Ferrell appeared to apologize to Newton after the play was over.
▪ Ron Rivera is 13-of-30 all-time on challenges after winning one in the third quarter. He began his career 3-of-12 in his first three seasons as head coach. He’s 7-of-11 this season.
▪ Kicker Graham Gano was evaluated for a possible concussion when he received a helmet-to-helmet hit on a Devin Hester tackle on a second-half kickoff. He would return without missing any kicks.
▪ Carolina’s 260 yards of total offense in the first quarter was the most in team history in any quarter. It was also the most by any team in any quarter this NFL season.
▪ Safety Kurt Coleman has seven interceptions, which at the end of the game was tied for the NFL lead.
▪ Comedian Gabriel Iglesias was in the locker room with Rivera after the game. Iglesias met Rivera a few years ago at a show and they became friends.
They said it
“That’s one of the thing that Teddy adds to it, and Philly Brown, their ability to get vertical.” – Ron Rivera, on the early quick-strike scores.
“This was not an easy football game by any means. That’s a good football team.” – Rivera on the Falcons.
“It was ugly. Obviously, Carolina is a very good football team and they have been playing extremely well all year.” – Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan.
“It was good. Hopefully we have more games like that.” – Cam Newton on sitting out the fourth quarter with a big lead.
“This defensive line is something special and we’re like brothers, no matter what.” – Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short, who had two sacks, on the defensive line’s cohesion.