The Carolina Panthers have won the NFC South after a 1-3 start, only to go 11-1 the rest of the way, while the Atlanta Falcons finished a miserable and disappointing season with a 4-12 record. Atlanta failed on chances to upset the Panthers, as it showcased how awful this season has been. Here are five things we learned from the game.
5. Falcons offensive line is a major issue
Matt Ryan will finish the season being sacked 44 times. Ryan is great- but he’s no Aaron Rodgers. He cannot produce without an awful offensive line.
He was sacked nine times in today’s game, a key reason the Panthers won this game. Their ability to pressure Ryan and get into his face was the major difference.
After taking too many sacks this season, Ryan wasn’t able to deliver in clutch moments like he usually has. Atlanta desperately needs to fix up the offensive line heading into next season.
4. Panthers rushing offense dominated the game
Facing the second-worst rushing defense in the league, it wouldn’t have taken a genius to expect the Panthers to run the ball all game- which they did.
Carolina ran 29 rushing plays against 27 passing plays- and they managed to pick up 134 yards on the ground, led by Cam Newton’s 72.
Atlanta’s inability to slow down the run or get after Cam Newton kept Matt Ryan on the sidelines longer than it should have- taking away his chances of doing more damage to this secondary.
Mark down the defensive line and pass rush as a major weakness the Falcons need to fix in the offseason, while Carolina’s rushing game looks to be its biggest strength offensively heading into the playoffs.
3. Cam Newton’s play needs to step up for playoff run
Newton is playing with one of the best running back tandems like by DeAngelo Williams and included with Mike Tolbert. He’s playing with one of the best and stingiest defenses in the league.
If neither of the running game or defense show up- the game will come down to Cam Newton. With Steve Smith trying to get healthy, Newton needs to step up for this team.
He’s been held to 181 passing yards or less in three of the last five games. His defense was a major factor in winning this week, along with defeating the New Orleans Saints last week and the New York Jets the week before.
Newton hasn’t been awful, but he hasn’t played like a playoff quarterback. If he doesn’t elevate his game in the postseason, then the Panthers will be in trouble.
2. Falcons can’t win in clutch situation, good-bye Tony Gonzalez.
What separates a playoff team from an owner of a top-10 pick in the draft? The ability to finish games.
Make that seven games the Falcons lost which were decided by seven points or less, not including the Matt Ryan pick-six inside the five with a minute left at San Francisco last week that ended in a 34-24 49ers victory.
Atlanta had so many games this year where they either allowed their opponent to score and win in the final minute, or the Falcons themselves failed on chances in the final minutes to win or tie games. Good teams are able to pull out close games, but the Falcons weren’t able too, and it’s the biggest reason they’re sitting on the couches for the postseason.
1. Panthers clinch NFC South, ready for playoff run
The Panthers won their first division title in five years after making an 11-1 run after losing three of their first four. With an athletic Cam Newton, a young motivated team, along with a strong running game and dangerous and physical defense, you can expect the Panthers to be ready to make a run back to the Super Bowl.
They’ll host a playoff game in two weeks. With a week off, they’ll have plenty of time to prepare for their first playoff game in the Cam Newton era. This team looks as ready, if not more, than any other NFL playoff team.
Like this story? CLICK HERE to hear the voice of the Panthers, Mick Mixon talk playoffs.