With the Falcons down 10 points and threatening in the fourth quarter, Carolina Panthers star linebacker and Shellman native Thomas Davis (58) intercepted a pass and celebrated with teammates Andre Neblett (68) and Charles Johnson (95). The former Randolph-Clay and UGA star finished with seven tackles — three for loss — and one pick in the 30-20 win Sunday.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An unstoppable Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers got their revenge Sunday on the Atlanta Falcons.
Four days after Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy promised “payback” and “punishment” for the Falcons, Newton threw for 287 yards and scored on a 72-yard run in a 30-20 victory.
It also didn’t hurt that the Panthers’ defense shut down one of the NFL’s best offenses, either.
Despite playing without four starters and having 13 players on injured reserve, the struggling Panthers dominated the NFC South champions. Newton piled up a career-high 116 yards on the ground, linebacker Thomas Davis — a former Randolph-Clay and University of Georgia star from Shellman — intercepted a key Matt Ryan pass late and the Panthers racked up 475 yards overall, avenging a Week 4 loss to Atlanta and snapping a five-game losing streak to their Interstate 85 rivals.
It was Newton’s first victory in four tries over his hometown team and he admitted after the game it was a special feeling.
“I think this game allows me to have a little chip on my shoulder,” Newton said.
Carolina’s defense was superb through 2½ quarters, helping build a 23-0 lead and a 356-86 edge in total yards. Davis finished second on the team with seven tackles, including three for a loss, and his first interception of the season.
After the game, Panthers coach Ron Rivera praised Davis to no end. In fact, he ended his news conference early after starting to get emotional while talking about the comeback of Davis, who has battled back from three torn ACLs — the first player in pro football history to do so — to be a major contributor this season.
“I gave our game ball to Thomas Davis,” Rivera told The Shelby (Star) Daily newspaper, speaking about the ninth-year linebacker out of Georgia “I told the team that last spring, Thomas and I sat down with our owner (Jerry Richardson) and we didn’t know exactly where Thomas was. Thomas looked me in the eye and told me he would come back. I said, ‘I’ll give you the opportunity.’
“As a head coach, when you have a guy look you in the eye, coming off three knee surgeries and he makes you believe in him, that’s what it’s all about. It really is.”
Davis told the newspaper he was lost for words when Rivera showed so much emotion over his performance.
“It was a special moment,” Davis said of his game ball. “After everything I’ve gone through over the past two and a half years, being able to come back out here and compete and just being able to make a play that, I feel like had an impact on the game … it feels great.”
Carolina (4-9) came in with little to play for except to gain a measure of revenge on the Falcons’ Ryan, whom they felt disrespected them after Atlanta’s 30-28 come-from-behind win on Sept. 30.
Hardy was upset when television cameras caught Ryan cursing at the Panthers sideline, telling them to get off the Falcons’ field. Hardy responded by saying last week the Panthers were a “better team” than the Falcons, adding a variety of trash talk.
After Sunday’s win Hardy turned the tables on the Falcons, repeating several times what Ryan told them back in Week 4 as he walked off the field. At one point Falcons kicker Matt Bryant returned fire at Hardy, saying “Watch us in January.”
Hardy left the locker room before reporters were allowed in.
Ryan downplayed the war of words.
“I don’t pay too much attention to it,” said Ryan, who threw for 342 yards and two scores with one interception. “They were better than us (Sunday), that’s for sure. They came out and played better than us. We’re in a position in our season where we’ve got everything right in front of us, and we need to get back to work and worry about that.”
Said Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: “It’s tough to say that we’re overall better than the Falcons because they’re 11-2, but I like Greg’s confidence.”
The Falcons, of course, are headed to the playoffs, and Sunday was a speed bump in what has been an outstanding season.
However, the loss will certainly be of concern to Falcons fans that have witnessed good teams in the past under coach Mike Smith either fade late in the season or struggle in the playoffs.
Smith said he’ll use the loss as a “teaching point” and that “we have to play our best football here in the fourth quarter” of the season.
It was all Carolina in the first half, beginning with the coin toss.
The Panthers hadn’t won a coin flip all year until Sunday, causing team captain Jordan Gross to exalt at midfield by thrusting both arms into the air. Including overtime, the Panthers were 0-13 on coin flips.
“I’ve never seen people cheering so loud for a coin toss,” Gross said with a laugh.
Carolina quickly took advantage, taking the opening kickoff and going 77 yards in 11 plays with Greg Olsen making a leaping grab in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
That set the tone for the first half.
By the time Graham’s Gano’s third field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, the Panthers led 16-0 and had run 45 plays to Atlanta’s 13, outgaining the Falcons 270-35.
Led by Newton, who had some big runs on third-and-long, including a highlight-reel 14-yarder in which he avoided three tacklers on third-and-11, the Panthers had 15 first downs to Atlanta’s two.
“Our offense is what I kind of thought it would be all year long,” Gross said. “We passed well. We threw the ball. We ran the ball well. We blocked well.”
Added Rivera said: “This shows what we were capable of. That’s the sad part.”
Carolina didn’t let up in the second half.
After the Panthers stuffed Atlanta on its first drive, Newton faked a handoff to DeAngelo Williams and raced 72 yards to the end zone, getting an assist from receiver Steve Smith, who took out two would-be tacklers with a big block around the 20. Newton somersaulted into the end zone for a 23-0 lead.
“I had a lot of practice blocking playing for (former Panthers) coach (John) Fox,” Smith said, referring to Fox’s tendency to run more than pass it while here in Carolina.
Ryan threw two touchdown passes and Michael Turner ran for one, but the Falcons couldn’t catch up.
The Panthers put it away midway through the fourth quarter. After costly defensive holding penalty on cornerback Dunta Robinson, Williams caught a screen pass from Newton and raced 53 yards for a 30-13 lead.
Atlanta had won eight of the past nine games against Carolina before Sunday’s loss.