What I Liked
Rewriting The History Books
In addition to becoming the first repeat champions in the NFC South's 13-year history, the Panthers also shed the dubious distinction of being the only NFL team without any back-to-back playoff appearances. Several players also reached milestones, including Greg Olsen, who capped off his first career 1,000 yard season, and Cam Newton, who joined Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham as the only quarterbacks with four or more 500 rushing yard seasons. Oh, and let's not forget about Kelvin Benjamin, who became the first Panthers' rookie ever to eclipse 1,000 receiving yards.
Young Guys Making An Impact
We knew the Panthers were undergoing a sort of youth movement a while ago (they broke a franchise record by starting six rookies in Week 15 against Tampa Bay, then broke it again by starting seven last week against Cleveland), but no one was quite sure how it would turn out until this game. That was when the Panthers' young guys stepped up and erased most of the doubt surrounding them. Three of the rookies in the secondary came up big, as safety Tre Boston had an 84-yard pick six, CB Bene Benwikere had seven tackles (just one short of a career high), and undrafted LB Adarius Glanton forced a fumble that was recovered and run back 33 yards by Thomas Davis to set up a Cam Newton touchdown run. On the line, second-year DT Star Lotulelei had a team high two sacks and three TFLs, and rookie DE Kony Ealy also recorded a sack. On offense, Philly Brown showed once again just how versatile he is, gaining 41 yards on a pair of end arounds as well as catching a 28-yard pass. Also, Trai Turner and Andrew Norwell helped anchor an offensive line that allowed just one sack and three TFLs.
What I Didn't Like
Benjamin's Bad Day
Although Kelvin Benjamin managed to break 1,000 yards on the season, he did it with his only catch for just nine yards. Two of his other four targets were dropped, including one that was almost perfectly on target and would've been good for at least 40 yards. Fortunately, the Panthers were able to make up the yardage with a Philly Brown run the next play, but drops like those are worryingly uncharachteristic of the talented young receiver. However, based on the performances he's been putting up all season, I'm willing to give Kelvin Benjamin the benefit of the doubt and chalk this up to just a bad day at the office.
The Tipping Point
Joe Webb's Touchdown-Saving Tackle On Devin Hester's 66-Yard Return
There were four seconds left in the first quarter and the Panthers had just gone up 10-0. Graham Gano kicked off into the end zone, but not out of it, and the NFL's best kick returner took advantage. Devin Hester got to about the 20, pulled a nice spin move, and then he was off. He took the ball all the way back to the Panthers 38 yard line before he was shoved out of bounds in a desperation lunge by third string QB Joe Webb. If Webb had missed the tackle, it would've been a 10-7 ball game. Instead, the defense held the line (almost literally, as the Falcons were able to take it down to the three) and the Falcons' burst of momentum fizzled out as they settled for a field goal.
TCSB Game MVP
Not only did these guys singlehandedly outscore the Falcons with two pick sixes, Josh Norman also held two time Pro Bowler Julio Jones to just four catches for 58 yards. With their recievers shut down, the Falcons had to turn to the run game, which was nothing without Steven Jackson (Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman combined for a grand total of 57 yards). By rendering the Falcons helpless, the secondary took a huge amount of pressure off the rest of the team, and it showed. With this stellar performance in the books, Panthers fans should be able to look forward to next week knowing that Larry Fitzgerald likely won't be doing what he did in 2009, when he roasted the defense for 166 yards and a touchdown.