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Panthers shut down Gonzalez in second half


CHARLOTTE – Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez had five catches for 77 yards and a touchdown in the first half of Sunday's game.

The Panthers knew Gonzalez would be targeted often, and they knew he'd make his share of plays.

But they couldn't afford to let the future Hall-of-Famer dominate the game.

"We just weren't playing how we needed to play," said linebacker Luke Kuechly, who intercepted a pass for Gonzalez in the first quarter – the only first half pass to Gonzalez that wasn't completed. "We came in at halftime and said, 'Look – we can't let this guy beat us.'"

Gonzalez had one catch for four yards in the second half.

What changed?

The Panthers wouldn't reveal the details of their second-half scheme, but whatever they did, it worked.

"We know how good of a player Tony Gonzalez is. He's been great for a long time. We knew what kind of a challenge we had coming in. In the first half he played well," linebacker Thomas Davis said.

"We did a great job of limiting what Tony was able to gain in the second half. Credit goes to our coaches. They made some adjustments and we, as players, were able to execute."

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan credited the Panthers for mixing up coverages to help contain his go-to target.

"They made some adjustments," Ryan said. "They got into some different coverages in the second half and kind of catered it around what Tony was doing."

STEWART DEBUTS: Jonathan Stewart didn't look like a running back who hadn't played in a regular season game since last November.

Stewart ran for 43 yards on nine carries and also recorded three catches for 22 yards in his first game since being activated off the physically unable to perform list.

"It was good to be back with the fellas, especially getting that win in the division game," Stewart said. "It's just a blessing. I spent a lot of time off, and I'm overdue it feels like."

Head coach Ron Rivera was pleased with Stewart's performance in his 2013 debut and felt the running back got stronger as the game wore on.

"I saw him start to get more and more confident and comfortable, and then we saw the explosiveness at the end of the game," Rivera said.

GANO STILL PERFECT: The Panthers have confidence that Graham Gano will make every kick he attempts, and for good reason.

The Carolina kicker hasn't missed all year (12-12 on field goals and 24-24 on extra points).

Gano connected on his longest field goal try of the season on Sunday against the Falcons – a 55-yard attempt in the third quarter to give the Panthers a 17-10 lead. It equaled the second-longest field goal in team history.

"He didn't quite hit it all. He said he over swung and hit it right in the middle of the ball, which is kind of scary," Rivera said.

It wasn't the cleanest kick off Gano's foot, but the line drive went straight through the uprights, as expected.

"Sometimes that happens," Gano said. "It was definitely not the ideal trajectory, but it's three points."

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