Wow. The Panthers are the kings of the South and have locked up a first round bye. So while teams will be gutting it out to stay alive this weekend, the Panthers will still have another week left in their magical season. So lets take a closer look at some of the plays that had the biggest impact in the Panthers win over the Atlanta Falcons, and lead to their first division crown since 2008.
The Falcons dominated the first quarter only giving up 31 yards to the Panthers and forcing a rare Cam Newton turnover. They were also the first team all season to score against the Panthers defense on an opening drive. Shortly into the second quarter the Falcons had built a 10-0 lead and looked to be on the verge of taking over the game when Deangelo Williams fumbled at the Falcons 15 yard line following a beautiful screen play. However 2 plays later little known undrafted free agent Melvin White gave the Panthers the spark they needed. White put in extra time in the film room this week and it payed off as he was able to diagnose the pass play before the snap. He saw Ryan wanted to go outside, however Harry Douglas was not on the same page and ran a slant inside. Melvin read the play wonderfully and made the interception. He stumbled to the ground untouched and made an incredible effort to crawl into the endzone for his first ever pick 6. The score was 10-7 and momentum of the game dramatically shifted. Many of the Panthers players will tell you that was the play that turned the game around for them.
So with the score now 10-7 the Falcons were forced to punt on their following possession giving the ball back to Cam and crew with 4 minutes left in the half. Pinned on their own 4 yard line Cam Newton lead the team to the red zone, thanks to a pass interference call drawn by WR Domenick Hixon. What happened next was the 2nd key play of the game. With around 30 seconds left and 2 timeouts, Cam called for a Mike Tolbert run and the big man answered with a 15 yard gain absolutely demolishing Falcons defender William Moore in the process. That hit got the entire team pumped and Cam delivered a pass to a wide open Ted Ginn in the end zone to give the Panthers their first lead of the game 14-7. The Panthers would receive the second half kickoff as well. Suddenly, all of the momentum is in Carolina’s corner and Panther Nation was their to show their support.
The Panthers first possession of the half was a weak one that ended in a punt. On Atlanta’s next possession Matt Ryan delivered a beautiful bomb to a streaking Roddy White for the 39 yard score. How Roddy White got behind the secondary is beyond me, but that touchdown allowed the Falcons to reclaim the lead at 17-14. The Panthers, like a true playoff team, were never rattled responding with a touchdown on their next drive. Thanks to some nifty running and a nice acting job to draw a late hit out of bounds from Cam Newton, the Panthers were able to drive the field culminating in our 3rd key play of the game, the Greg Olsen touchdown grab. This has to be one of the hardest thrown passes I’ve ever seen and Greg Olsen can confirm it is definitely the fastest pass he has had to catch. With 3rd down on the Atlanta 7 yard line, Cam had all day to stand in the pocket. He scanned the field going through progressions, finally spotting a tiny window to zing a beautiful touchdown strike to Olsen. 21-17. The Panthers would reclaim the lead for good on that play.
Atlanta’s first possession of the fourth quarter saw them settling for a field goal and putting pressure on the Panthers as they clung to a 1 point lead, 21-20. As a Panthers fan, this quarter seemed to last forever. Riverboat Ron decided to play conservative the entire quarter, trusting his defense to get him the win. Yet again, Riverboat made the right call. This brings us to our 4th key play of the game (more like 2 plays). The Falcons took over the ball with 3 minutes and 21 seconds left to play only trailing by one. The first play was a nice gain of 7 on a pass play to RB Steven Jackson. However, the Panthers defense was ready. On the next 2 plays they sacked Ryan twice. The first was a safety blitz from Mike Mitchell, followed by the usual celebration. Right on cue Charles “Big Money” Johnson sacked Matty Ice on the next play forcing the Falcons to punt at the 2 minute warning. The last sack set a franchise record for most sacks in a game at 9. Atlanta punted and Ron Rivera playing conservative again, called 3 straight run plays and punted the ball back to Atlanta with 1 minute and 20 seconds left in the game.
All Atlanta needed was a field goal to spoil the Panthers day. It seemed they were going to get it too, as Matt Ryan was able to make some key passes that allowed receivers to get out of bounds and stop the clock. With 1st and 10 at the Falcons 43 yard line Matt Ryan looked ready to snap the ball. At the last second he decided to step up to the center and call out some adjustments. For whatever reason the center decided to snap the ball to Matt Ryan while his eyes were focused elsewhere leading to our 5th key play of the game. The fumble was recovered by Falcons’ RB Jason Snelling, but after a deflating loss of 27 yards. The damage was done. The falcons followed that blunder with a false start penalty, resulting in a 10 second run off. 2 plays later it was all over and the Panthers were the division champs. The cheers of Panther Nation rang out through Atlanta’s stadium as the players celebrated on the field. I screamed so many things that can’t be repeated and must have had goosebumps for a few hours after the game. It’s a great time to be a Panthers fan. Thank you Panthers for this wonderful season and thank you Kraken for this amazing soundbite. We’re not done yet. Keep Pounding! Superbowl or bust!