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Panthers atop the NFC South with win against the Atlanta Falcons

 By Zach Goins

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

October 11, 2020

For the first time since 2014, the Panthers are returning home from Atlanta victorious. 

Carolina continued its winning streak Sunday, delivering another offensive explosion and a 23-16 win over the Falcons.

The win brings the Panthers’ record to 3-2 overall– a welcome surprise for fans across the Carolinas– and ties Carolina with Tampa Bay atop the NFC South.

“It just shows that the noise on the outside doesn’t matter. Only thing that matters is what we discuss in our locker room and our facility,” quarterback Teddy Bridgewater said of Carolina’s surprising start. “We can’t buy into what’s being said on the outside. As long as we come to work each day, we play for one another, everything else will fall into place.”

Here are some takeaways from Sunday’s win:

Panthers dominate the first half

The Falcons used their first possession to drive down the field and score a touchdown, but after that, the first half was all Carolina.

Whether it was the offense moving the ball at will, or the defense swarming all over the field, the Panthers flipped the switch and never looked back. Carolina punted on its first drive, but scored on all four of its ensuing first-half possessions, while the defense stopped four-straight Atlanta drives.

Much of Carolina’s offensive domination was thanks to Bridgewater, who passed for 261 yards in the first half– the most of any quarterback so far this season. Bridgewater also tossed two touchdowns while leading the Panthers to 20 unanswered points. 

“It was a great team effort. O-line did a great job of sustaining drives, especially at the end of the game right there, allowing us to drive down the field, kick a field goal,” Bridgewater said. “I’m just proud of these guys. Just got to find a way to keep winning.”

Bridgewater finished the day 27-of-37 for 313 yards and two touchdowns.

Bend-but-don’t-break defense

The Panthers defense was the epitome of bend-but-don’t-break on Sunday, but no play better encapsulated that than safety Juston Burris’s fourth quarter interception in the end zone.

The momentum was shifting as Atlanta’s offense added two second-half field goals to make it a one-score game, and the Falcons were on the move again. Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan led his team all the way down to the Carolina 5-yard line and had Atlanta on the verge of tying things up.

“They had turned the tide of the game,” head coach Matt Rhule said of the Falcons in the second half. “We were wearing down, they were moving the ball.”

That is, until Carolina’s defense once again stood tall as Burris picked off Ryan’s pass to Brian Hill and secured a Panthers victory. But the play wasn’t a surprise to Burris.

“I figured it would happen,” Burris said. “It was a safety on a slot receiver. They thought they had a mismatch and I figured it was going to come to me. I couldn’t panic and it was just time to make a play.”

On Atlanta’s other two second-half possessions, the Falcons were able to methodically move the ball down the field thanks to an impressive outing from running back Todd Gurley (14 carries, 121 yards, one touchdown) and Ryan’s connection with wide receiver Calvin Ridley. However, when it came down to it, Carolina’s defense was able to keep Atlanta out of the end zone and force them to settle for field goals– and that made all the difference. 

Third-down Curt

Through the Panthers’ first four games, Curtis Samuel has been a bit underwhelming, but the wide receiver used Sunday to remind fans just how valuable he can be. 

“I thought Curtis was really one of the stories today,” Rhule said of Samuel. “He made a bunch of great plays.”

As Carolina looked to jumpstart its offense trailing 7-0 in the first quarter, Bridgewater turned to Samuel on three straight third downs, and Samuel delivered. Those crucial catches allowed the Panthers to extend the drive until they reached field goal range for kicker Joey Slye, who knocked through a 38-yard kick for Carolina’s first points of the day.

In fact, three of the Panthers four third-down conversions came thanks to Samuel, but that’s nothing new. Through the early games on Sunday, Samuel leads the NFL with 11 receptions on third down. 

With running backs Christian McCaffrey and Reggie Bonnafon sidelined Sunday, Samuel also took a few more snaps at running back, where he had his most successful ground game of the season, rushing four times for 28 yards.

Injuries on defense

Cornerback Donte Jackson has been impressive so far this season, except he’s barely gotten a chance to play. Jackson missed half of the season opener and was injured again in Week 3. The injury bug struck again on Sunday as Jackson left the game with the same ailing toe early in the first quarter against the Falcons. Jackson’s absence forced rookie cornerback Troy Pride Jr. back into action.

The defense lost another key member in the second quarter when Brian Burns left the game just before halftime. It was later announced Burns suffered a concussion and would not be returning.

Burns was already causing trouble in the first half before his injury, recording a strip-sack on Matt Ryan that Carolina nearly recovered. 

Late in the fourth quarter the defensive line took another blow when Kawann Short and Yetur Gross-Matos both left the game with shoulder and ankle injuries, respectively.

“Really proud of our guys, the amount of guys that stepped up in this game,” Rhule said. “Burns goes down, I thought he was playing really well. Yetur goes down, D-Jack goes down, and everyone steps up.”

The injuries to a number of Carolina’s defenders didn’t negatively impact Sunday’s result, but it could spell trouble for a thin defense in the weeks to come. The Panthers were fairly deep along the defensive line to start the year, but now with three starters going down it’s becoming a concern. Cornerback has always been a position of need– especially after veteran Eli Apple re-aggravated a hamstring injury last week.  

The Panthers take on the Chicago Bears at home on Sunday, October 18 on Fox.

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