Five things I liked about Carolina's 34-10 win over Atlanta, which improved the Panthers to 5-3 at the season's midpoint:
1. The defense. Because it's so good, the Panthers can win even when the offense is sometimes struggling. The D allowed only 10 points and scored seven on its own on Drayton Florence's 38-yard interception return that cinched it. Luke Kuechly's early INT also set up the Panthers' first TD.
2. It wasn't just No.1. Cam Newton was extraordinary for the first three games of this four-game winning streak, but he fell to earth Sunday. Newton had two interceptions -- the first ones he had thrown since Oct.6th -- and overthrew a number of other passes, especially when targeting Steve Smith. But Newton was good enough -- one TD throw and another TD run -- and the Panthers showed they are a good enough team to win without him at his absolute best. Also, a shout-out to offensive coordinator Mike Shula for a heckuva call on fourth-and-1 from the Falcon 14, when he called a play-action pass for a TD to a wide-open Greg Olsen (shown above, celebrating with Newton).
3. Brandon LaFell. LaFell made several big catches in traffic, holding on when he got drilled. But his best play was almost his worst. He had a 30-yard catch-and-run to convert a key third down with Carolina clinging to a 17-10 lead. But then he lost a fumble. And then the ball got knocked right back to him -- while he was on the ground! -- and he recovered at the Atlanta 8. It was a huge play -- and very lucky -- as Newton scored one play later.
4. Graham Gano. Ridiculously good all year, Gano hit from 55 yards this time on his most significant kick to stretch a 14-10 lead to 17-10. He also made four extra points, which means he is now 36-for-36 on the year on kicks (24 XP, 12 FG).
5. Panther fans. It was loud at Bank of America Stadium, and for once the people trying to buy tickets outside outnumbered the ones trying to sell them. A month-long winning streak will do that for you.