CHARLOTTE – Quarterback Cam Newton described it as accountability. Center Ryan Kalil called it resiliency. Head coach Ron Rivera called it consistency. Wide receiver Brandon LaFell called it responsibility.
Call it whatever you want, but the "it" factor the Panthers have working for them right now again added up to victory Sunday.
"It was a whole team effort with guys grabbing the bull by the horns and saying, 'I'm going to be the one to make the play,' " Newton said after the Panthers pulled away for a 34-10 triumph over the Atlanta Falcons. "Of course we want to have a perfect game, but things are going to happen, and good or bad you've got to have focus and say, 'I've got a job to do.' "
Things happened at the end of the first half that could have sent a lesser team into a tailspin. When the Panthers gave up a late touchdown, lost a pair of guards to force an inexperienced backup tackle into action, then lost the ball in the red zone, they easily could have said, "Here we go again."
Instead, they collectively said, "Here we go."
"We've done a good job of just doing our jobs and of just staying at it, staying at it, staying at it," Kalil said. "We're not really worrying about what's happened in the past – whether that's last season, the season before that, the losses early on this year, the wins early on this year or the first half today.
"We're continuing to stay the course and fight, fight, fight."
The Panthers led 14-10 at halftime, but it almost felt like they were losing. They led 14-3 at the two-minute warning, but on the next play Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan spotted tight end Tony Gonzalez for a 17-yard touchdown.
The Panthers still had time to answer and moved the ball to midfield, but then they lost starting right guard Chris Scott to a knee injury. They turned to veteran Jeff Byers, but a couple of snaps later he left with an ankle injury. That left it to Nate Chandler, a defensive lineman last season who converted to offensive line in the offseason – specifically offensive tackle.
Through the turmoil, the Panthers still penetrated the red zone, only to have Newton throw an interception while trying to throw the ball out of the end zone.
That's how the first half ended, but the Panthers refused to let it be the way the second half started.
"We weren't very consistent in the first half. We were just good enough to score and just good enough to keep them from scoring on some of their opportunities," Rivera said. "The big thing that we did was come out in the second half with energy."
That energy was palpable. After receiving the kickoff to open the second half, the Panthers reeled off four consecutive plays that picked up between 9 and 11 yards. The drive did stall, but not before they advanced the ball far enough for Graham Gano to line a 55-yard field goal through the uprights for a 17-10 lead.
"It was about, 'Everybody needs to step up and be responsible. Quit pointing fingers and be responsible,'" LaFell said. "No matter who made a bad play or made a good play, it's time to stop sitting around and waiting for somebody else to make a play. Go make a play yourself.
"We've become good at that, and our leader has become great at that."
LaFell was referring to Newton, who didn't have his best day after enjoying so many banner days of late. Newton had accounted for eight touchdowns against no turnovers in Carolina's previous three victories but had two touchdowns and two interceptions Sunday. Even after the field goal made it 17-10, the Panthers defense stymied Atlanta but the offense still stumbled some.
But that too changed in the fourth quarter, when Newton led the offense on a 66-yard scoring drive that all but sealed it, closing the deal himself with an 8-yard touchdown run.
"For us, it's about coming out each and every day and proving that even though you can't play lights out each and every day, we're still going to hold ourselves accountable," Newton said. "I'm going to have to watch film to see exactly what went wrong, but we still came out and beat a great Atlanta team.
"That's growth, and that's what you need to see."