Panthers clinch first-round playoff bye in blowout win


The Carolina Panthers (13-0) stayed perfect on Sunday with an 38-0 pummeling of the Atlanta Falcons (6-7) in Charlotte. The win clinched a first-round bye for Carolina in the playoffs and inched Cam Newton and Co. one week closer to NFL history. It also gave the Panthers a franchise record 13th win. Here's what you need to know:

1. So the Falcons spent the week preparing for Carolina's zone read game. Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn told the visiting broadcasters that this was what the Panthers did best. They block the plays incredibly well and use it to pace their offense. So how do the Panthers respond? By coming out and gaining more yards in one quarter (260) than any team in the NFL this season. Newton, who went 12 of 17 for 246 yards and three touchdowns in the first half, had the best opening half of his entire career. Ted Ginn's first two catches were touchdowns, one of which went 74 yards straight over the top of Quinn's defense -- the Panthers' longest play from scrimmage this year. This is a versatile team rolling with ease toward the Super Bowl. It really is incredible how effortless this looks. Newton was converting second-and-20s Sunday without breaking a sweat against the coordinator of a Super Bowl defense.

2. In the second quarter, Quinn gathered almost his entire team together for a pep talk. They were already down three touchdowns. It was a fine gesture, but in a way it summed up the dire straits the Falcons are in right now. They've lost six in a row and have to play the Panthers again in two weeks. Before the game, Julio Jones told FOX Sports sideline correspondent Pam Oliver that he felt like the Falcons were playing not to lose over their massive losing streak. This is a coach who was almost brought to tears by these same players after a resounding victory against the Eagles to kick off their season on Monday night. Has Quinn lost his team already?

3. The only remaining test for Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is going to be player management. Cam Newton took a shot at the end of the first half causing him to miss a play and Greg Olsen injured his left knee while Jonathan Stewart sprained his foot. Luke Kuechly was on the sideline getting his ankle taped but came back in to pick off Matt Ryan at the end of the third quarter. Bene' Benwikere was carted off the field in the fourth with fractured leg and will miss the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, Rivera has Newton in through the third quarter, at one point throwing lead blocks on a reverse. Honestly, if this is the way he wants to play it, good for him. That's why he's called Riverboat Ron, and there have been good teams who have tried to sit their players only to see it backfire massively. Carolina is just as fun to watch on the sideline as it is on the field, so why mess with a good thing? Also, with Benwikere, the team was already short on cornerbacks and there's not much it can do.

4. Kawann Short became the most prolific pass-rushing defensive tackle in Panthers history Sunday, passing Kris Jenkins for most sacks in a season by a DT in franchise history. He has nine sacks on the season now. A few years down the road when free agency picks this team apart, we are going to shake our heads and laugh wondering how the heck Dave Gettleman had Short, Star Lotulelei, Jared Allen, Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy on the same team. This could very well be the deepest defensive line we've seen in more than a decade.

5. Last week, we wrote about prospective head coaches with something to prove down the stretch. Unfortunately, Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan will be tied at the hip with this spiral alongside Quinn. Seeing Matt Ryan get blanked again like he did Sunday is startling, especially for a quarterback viewed so frequently as one of the five best in football. His inability to find, or become simpatico with a second wide receiver has been startling. Of course, an offensive line that no longer gets to the second level for their budding star running back is not helping.