CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton raced from one end of the Carolina Panthers’ sideline to the other in the final moments of a 38-0 rout of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, raising his arms to the crowd as fans cheered on their emotional MVP candidate.
“I believe right now it’s our moment as Panthers,” Newton said with a smile as he praised the team’s fan base following his victory run. “We try to seize it as much as possible.”
Newton — and the fans — had plenty of reason to celebrate.
The fifth-year quarterback completed 15 of 21 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns, and the unbeaten Panthers clinched a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs in what Newton described as the team’s most complete game.
It’s hard to argue that.
The Panthers outgained the Falcons 424-230, forced four turnovers and matched the franchise’s largest margin of victory.
It was never close.
Jonathan Stewart ran for a 1-yard touchdown and Newton connected on scoring strikes of 74 and 46 yards to Ted Ginn Jr. as the Panthers (13-0) scored on their first three possessions to take 21-0 first quarter lead.
Newton also threw a 4-yard TD pass to Ed Dickson in the final seconds of the first half before leaving for good at the end of the third quarter with Carolina up 38. He finished with a career-high quarterback rating of 153.3, and the Panthers won their 17th straight regular-season game.
“Don’t ease up on the gas,” Newton said. “… We want to be considered finishers.”
Carolina’s defense had two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and registered five sacks — two by defensive tackle Kawann Short — while limiting struggling Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to 224 yards passing. They played inspired football after allowing Drew Brees to throw for three TD passes last week in a narrow escape.
It was a devastating loss for the slumping Falcons (6-7), who started 5-0 but have lost six straight.
“It was about as badly as we can play,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “That’s frustrating.”
Falcons coach Dan Quinn called the loss “unacceptable.”
“We look for smart, tough and finish,” Quinn said. “That’s what I expect from our club. When that doesn’t happen, yes, I have a lot of disappointment.”
The two teams meet again on Dec. 27.
The Panthers can clinch the No. 1 seed before then if they beat the New York Giants and Arizona loses.
It seems the biggest issue the Panthers might have between now and the playoffs will be balancing winning and staying healthy.
There were some scary moments for Carolina on the injury front.
Stewart (left ankle), who ran for 75 yards, and tight end Greg Olsen (left knee) left the game in the second quarter and did not return. Coach Ron Rivera said both players could have returned to the game, but were held out because the team had a commanding lead.
However, Rivera said starting cornerback Bene Benwikere broke his left leg and is done for the season.
Rivera has been non-committal on if he will rest players if they clinch a first-round bye or go for history and a shot at an undefeated season.
The Panthers jumped on the Falcons early, scoring on touchdown drives of 80, 93 and 80 yards on their first three possessions.
After the Falcons won the coin toss and elected to defer, the Panthers went to work establishing the ground attack. Stewart rushed five times for 52 yards on the opening drive, including a 44-yard burst. He capped the drive by leaping over the pile for his sixth TD rushing of the season.
Ginn, who has struggled with dropped passes, made an over-the-head grab along the left sideline despite pass interference on Robert Alford and to the end zone for a 74-yard TD for the 14-point lead — the longest play from scrimmage this year for Carolina.
Newton went back to the air on the next drive, finding Ginn for a 46-yard TD pass over the middle behind the Falcons’ defense. The rout was on.
Newton left for a play in the second quarter after hitting his funny bone. He returned to throw his third TD of the game to Dickson, who made a diving catch on a slant for a 28-0 lead. It marked the 11th straight game the Panthers have scored at least 27 points.
NOTES: Ginn has a career-high eight touchdowns, including four in the last two weeks. … Short broke Kris Jenkins’ record for most sacks (nine) in a single-season by a defensive tackle with his two on Ryan, both of which resulted in fumbles, one for a turnover. … Kurt Coleman intercepted his seventh pass of the season, moving him into a tie for the league lead.