What I Liked
I'd almost forgotten what it was like to have a strong running game until I watched DeAngelo Williams put up 41 yards on 10 carries, his highest rushing total since the Panthers' Week 1 win at Tampa Bay. If this isn't just a fluke, and Williams is back to his pre-injuries form, the Panthers will be able to give him more of the load offensively and not have to rely as much on an already overloaded Cam Newton. That's a good thing.
Yes, they did almost get Cam Newton killed on the very first play of the team's first possession when Tyson Jackson was able to breeze through untouched and issue a helmet-to-helmet hit so brutal that Cam was later evaluated for a possible concussion. But after giving up nine sacks last week against the Eagles, a feat Philadelphia hadn't accomplished since 2008, watching the offensive line surrender just two sacks and no other hits on the quarterback felt nothing short of miraculous. If these guys can keep it together through the final five games, then a vast number of this team's problems immdiately go away, and the Panthers have a great shot at winning this year's ugliest division.
What I Didn't Like
Questionable Play Calling
Earlier in the season, many of the Panthers' failures could've been attributed to the men wearing the helmets. However, it seems we've reached the point where at least part of this team's problem lies with the men wearing the headsets. Throughout this game, there were many times when the plays that were being called just didn't seem like the right choice under the circumstances. Earlier in the game, Cam couldn't seem to connect with a receiver, yet the Panthers kept calling pass plays. Then, late in the fourth quarter with the game on the line and Cam on a hot streak, the Panthers opted to call three consecutive run plays from the Falcons' 32-yard line. This, of course, would result in Graham Gano's missed field goal which debatably cost the team the game. The big question here, though, is not why Gano missed a kick within his normal range, but why Riverboat Ron opted to merely poke at the Falcons when he could have delivered the killing blow. I understand the desire to force Atlanta to burn their last timeouts, but the clock runs for completions, too, and there's absolutely no reason not to at least try to keep the chains moving against the NFL's worst pass defense. Let's hope Ron Rivera and his staff take this bye week as an opportunity to do a bit of self-examination and figure out how they can avoid a repeat of this debacle.
The Tipping Point
Graham Gano's Missed Field Goal
It was a 46-yarder, normally well within the range of a man who's put it through from 70 yards out on the practice field. But this time, Graham Gano put it wide left, and took the air out of a resurgent Panthers offense. He would get another chance from 63 yards out as time expired, but it would be blocked by rookie DE Ra'Shede Hageman, and the Panthers would fall to 3-7-1.
TCSB Game MVP
The Cincinnati Bengals
Wait, what? Yeah, that's right, this week's Game MVP is the Cincinnati Bengals, who by beating the Saints 27-10 kept the race for the NFC South a tight one. When they come off their bye week on November 30th against the Minnesota Vikings, a team with troubles of its own, the Panthers will be at most two games out of the division lead (assuming the Saints don't lose to the Ravens, who are coming off a bye week of their own, and the Falcons don't lose to the Browns, with a newly-reinstated Josh Gordon back in their arsenal). From there, they'll have another game against each of their divisional opponents and the Browns. If the Panthers take full advantage of this bye week to rest the guys who need it, fix what needs fixing, and prepare for the final stretch of the 2014 season, there's nothing stopping them from at least contending to become the first ever repeat champions of the NFL's wildest division.