The disappointing Atlanta Falcons were hoping a trip to Charlotte would spark some sort of a turnaround in an otherwise forgettable season.  By laying a 34-10 thumping on their NFC South rivals, the surprising Carolina Panthers made certain that the outcome would be anything but memorable for Atlanta. 

The Panthers complete domination of a team they have looked up to in the standings in recent years showed just how fast fortunes can change in today’s NFL, for the worse and better.  Both reversals of fortune were in full display Sunday.  Here are five takeaways (pardon the phrase Falcon fans) from yesterday’s contest:

 

Cam Newton is growing up

Things for the athletically gifted yet mostly inconsistent Newton could have swung in either direction in year number three.   In 2011, having plenty to prove as the reigning Heisman winner and overall #1 pick in the NFL, Newton busted on to the scene by becoming the first rookie QB ever to throw for over 400 yards in his first game.  That was quite the high bar to set, and Newton, both on and off the field, has since struggled to live up to the promise that performance offered as to what the future could hold.  Fame, fortune, and incredibly high expectations have seemed almost too heavy a burden, and after a wildly uneven sophomore season, many were wondering if only one successful college season was enough of a sample set to justify such a large investment. 

By guiding the Panthers to their 4th consecutive win Sunday, Newton is starting to display the kind of consistency expected of someone with his talent and draft position.  He is now starting to exhibit the dual threat potential showcased while leading Auburn to the National Championship.  Against Atlanta, Newton had his 18th game with at least 1 rushing and 1 passing touchdown,  by far the most ever by an QB over their first 3 seasons (next closest is Steve Grogan’s 11 after the 1975 season). 

No other QB has more than 6 of these games over the last 3 seasons.  His 70.5 QBR Sunday was his 4th consecutive game over 70 (65-70 is Pro Bowl worthy), and his total QBR of 83.5 is behind only Colin Kaepernick since week 6.  If there is any area of improvement, it would be passes beyond 15 yards, where Newton was a paltry 1-9 for 21 yards and 2 poorly-thrown interceptions. In each pick off, both grossly underthrown, Newton’s body was practically perpendicular to the line of scrimmage as he appeared to throw completely flat-footed with no forward hip motion.  This will be something that only time in the film room and instruction from those around him can repair.     

 

If Jonathan Stewart is healthy, the Panthers may have the most lethal running game in the league

Stewart was activated from the PUP list on Sunday after undergoing season-ending ankle surgery, and his addition added to an already potent running attack the might just give Carolina something the NFL has really never seen. 

While the Panthers overall rushing stats were not earth shattering (33 total carries for 131 yards), they now have not 3 but 4 options of advancing the ball on the ground.  Stewart joins fellow tailback DeAngelo Williams, bruising fullback Mike Tolbert, and QB Newton as threats to run on any play.  The four had 43, 42, 24, and 22 yards respectively.  Each of the three backs are also legitimate threats in the passing game, hauling in a total of 8 catches for 47 yards.  This kind of balanced attack is exactly what a team with a stout and opportunistic defense will thrive off of. 

The Panthers thus dominated in time of possession 36:25 to the Falcons 23:35.  It is also this kind of possession-driven ball control offense that will perform at peak in the latter part of the NFL season, when the weather has turned and opposing defenses are struggling just to keep healthy bodies on the field.

 

Matt Ryan looks like more of a system QB then a field general

In year number 6, and at the prime age of 28, these should be salad years for Ryan.  Coming of a 13-3 season which included a blistering 8-0 start, the 3rd overall pick of the 2008 season was given a $104 million contract in the off-season, a sure sign that the Falcons felt secure in Ryan guiding them for the next 5 years at minimum.  There comes a time in each quarterbacks playing career where he is either given credit for raising the play of those around him, or exposed for who he may really be when the talent around him is diminished.  Other elite QB’s in the league such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Aaron Rogers have all managed to flourish despite non-descript playmakers lining up on offense. 

This season has seen the dynamic tandem of Falcons’ wide-outs Roddy White and Julio Jones miss significant time, and in their absence, Ryan has appeared nothing short of lost.  While still managing to achieve 20 completions against 27 attempts Sunday versus Carolina, he still only accumulated 219 yards, with 1 TD against 3 picks, one of them a momentum-crushing pick-6 that essentially ended the Falcons’ chances.  He continues to look rattled in the pocket and looks ready to dump the ball off over the middle quicker than necessary. 

In a game that was still hanging in the balance in the 4th quarter on the road against a touch division foe, Ryan appears to not to be able to improvise and make plays in crunch time.  Without question, the Falcons are going to need to see more out of their recently minted trigger man, even if the majority of his weapons are watching rather than playing. 

 

Steven Jackson can still make a difference

One of the big offseason free agent splashes was made when the Falcons landed the 240 lb workhorse RB Jackson, expected to be the final offensive piece needed to push the perennial contender Falcons over the edge to ultimate Super Bowl contender.  Thus far, Jackson has had zero impact on the Falcons offensive scheme.  While he opened with 77 yards in the season’s first game against the saints, 50 of those came on one run. 

In week two at home against St. Louis, he managed all of 3 carrier for no yards before exiting with a thigh injury.  He stayed on the injury shelf until last week, nursing both the thigh and consequently a hamstring before returning against Arizona.  However, against a tough Panther front seven, Jackson finally looked like the hard pounding back the Falcons hoped he would be.  Jackson rambled for 57 yards on 13 carries, and likely would have achieved more had the game played out differently. 

On several runs, Jackson showed the burst that he has been known for, busting several runs for over 10 yards.  If Roddy White comes back close to normal form, and the outside passing game opens up just a bit, the interior running game will continue to loosen, and Jackson could be the 100-yard feature back the offense is in such need of.

 

The Panthers defense will be the difference maker if they are to go anywhere

The swarming and very physical Panther defense ranks #2, behind only undefeated Kansas City, in points allowed per game at 13.2.  Defensive-minded Head Coach Ron Rivera has assembled a squad that is quick to the QB and suffocating on opposing wide receivers.  Additionally, they are getting key turnovers and turning them into points.  Drayton Florence’s interception for touchdown late in the game sealed the fate of the Falcons, and while Ryan’s throw was somewhat ill-advised and off target, the play showed that even the slightest mistake against their secondary can result in disaster for the offense. 

The mid-season defensive MVP is 2nd year MLB Luke Kuechly, 2nd on the team in solo tackles, and tied for the interception lead at 3.  This unit will be the key component to success should the Panthers entertain any hopes of a late December or early January run.