CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers encountered what they called a "wake-up call" last week during their comeback victory at New Orleans.
Well, they were wide awake Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. Carolina stormed out to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and effectively put the game to bed. It finished 38-0, and with their 13th victory of the season, the undefeated Panthers clinched a postseason bye.
"I'm glad they were paying attention and just focusing on what we had to do," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Last week we came out on the right end and then this week we were able to build some momentum early into the game."
The Panthers seized total control of the game by reaching the end zone on their first three possessions.
"It was very important for us to start off fast and get touchdowns rather than field goals," quarterback Cam Newton said.
Running back Jonathan Stewart opened the scoring by leaping over the pile for a 1-yard touchdown. Moments later, Newton hit wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. in stride down the left sideline for a 74-yard touchdown. Ginn fought off illegal contact from cornerback Robert Alford to make the catch and managed to just barely keep his foot inbounds.
After the Carolina defense forced another Atlanta punt, Newton and Ginn went back to work. This time, Newton found him cutting across the field for a 46-yard touchdown.
"Our goal was to go out and start fast, and that was what we did," Ginn said. "At any given time we can strike like this, whether it's me or somebody else. We just tried to go out and play fast."
Added Rivera: "Cam made a couple really good decisions. I thought (offensive coordinator) Mike (Shula) called a really good game, and we were able to exploit some things."
Three possessions and 260 total yards for a three-touchdown lead. And it wasn't even the second quarter.
"(That start) made the day a lot easier than expected," Ginn said.
Carolina extended the lead late in the second quarter. After tight end Greg Olsen left the game with a knee injury, tight end Ed Dickson reached out full extension to haul in a 4-yard touchdown pass with 17 seconds remaining in the half.
At halftime, the Panthers led 28-0 and had outgained the Falcons in total yards 349 to 96.
"It was ugly," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said. "They played extremely well today, and we did not."
The Panthers recorded takeaways on three consecutive Falcons possessions in the third quarter.
First, linebacker A.J. Klein forced running back Devonta Freeman to fumble, and defensive end Kony Ealy made the recovery. That led to a 38-yard field goal from Graham Gano.
Next, defensive tackle Kawann Short strip-sacked Ryan and recovered the loose ball himself at the Atlanta 26-yard line. That led to a 16-yard touchdown run from running back Fozzy Whittaker.
Then linebacker Luke Kuechly intercepted Ryan's underthrown pass to wide receiver Justin Hardy over the middle.
"Defensively, we attacked them," Rivera said.
Following that turnover late in the third quarter, Derek Anderson entered the game in relief of Newton. Several key Carolina started rested for the entire fourth quarter as the Panthers claimed their 13th victory, the most in franchise history.
"This was huge for this team, especially against this opponent in the division," safety Roman Harper said. "It's one of the best wins I've had. And the great thing about this is we're still getting better."
View game action photos from Carolina's 38-0 win over Atlanta.