For one Sunday, the Carolina Panthers were just what Ryan Kalil once predicted them to be. (UPDATE: Here's my column on Cam Newton and that remarkable 72-yard TD run).
Strangely enough, the Panthers looked Super Bowl-worthy for three hours, never trailing and beating Atlanta, 30-20, at Bank of America Stadium on a day that began with a drizzle and ended in brilliant sunshine.
The Panthers are only 4-9 and going nowhere except home in the postseason, despite Kalil's preseason "We'll Win the Super Bowl" prediction in a full-page Observer advertisement in July. But they absolutely dismantled Atlanta (11-2 and already the NFC South champions for 2012) in the first half, then held on convincingly in the second when the Falcons tried to mount a comeback.
Five amazing things about this game:
1) The Panthers won the coin toss, and it seemed symbolic. It was the first time in 14 tries this season they had done so, as Atlanta called the toss incorrectly. Carolina then immediately took the opening kickoff and scored on a long drive.
2) The Panthers outgained Atlanta 270-35 in the first half and led 16-0 at halftime. It was uncanny -- especially the play of Carolina's defense.
3) Cam Newton's 72-yard TD run in the third quarter. On a zone read option play, Newton kept and raced through a huge hole. He looked like he might be stopped around the 20, but slowed down to allow Steve Smith to throw him a block and then did a front flip into the end zone. Yes, a front flip. It had to be one of Newton's best five NFL plays ever. Also, for the fourth straight game, Newton did not have a turnover of any type and became the first Panther QB ever to have a 100-yard rushing game.
4) Carolina kept the Falcons down just enough late. Remember, Carolina had led Atlanta 28-24 in the fourth quarter the first time these two teams met in late September, only to lose 30-28. This time the Panthers led 23-0 and kept the Falcons down just enough (helped by a diving Thomas Davis interception. Ron Rivera gave a game ball to Davis after the game, then broke down talking about it in his press conference afterwards). The Panthers actually made Greg Hardy -- the Panthers' defensive end who had said flatly on Wednesday that the Panthers were a better team than Atlanta -- look like a prophet.
5) DeAngelo Williams. Behind some great blocking on a screen pass (and a perfect call by the coaches), DeAngelo sealed the game with a 53-yard touchdown that put the Panthers up 30-13 and clinched the game with 4:11 to go. Then Williams did something else unusual -- when Newton came to get the football to give it to a fan in the end zone (as is Newton's custom on most Panther TDs) Williams wouldn't give it up. The two playfully wrestled for the ball for a moment, but DeAngelo kept both hands on it and took it to the sideline with him. Newton said afterward that those are "good arguments to have."