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Carolina Panthers will beat Atlanta Falcons for NFC South title

It's easy to dismiss the Carolina Panthers based on their sub-.500 record, but the defending NFC South champions are heating up at the right time. The Panthers opened up December with three straight wins, and it appears this team could be rounding into form as a legitimate playoff squad. Of course, Carolina still has to punch its ticket to the postseason.

Sunday brings a winner-take-all showdown against the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. Here are three reasons why I believe Ron Rivera's Panthers will repeat as division champs -- something that's never happened in the NFC South -- and be a challenging out in postseason play:

1) The Panthers are unleashing Cam Newton as a dual-threat playmaker.

Despite (overblown) reports about the demise of "the running quarterback," the Panthers have rediscovered a way to maximize their franchise player's talents by allowing him to do what he does best on the football field: run around and make plays.

After confining Newton to the pocket for much of this season due to injuries and philosophical changes, the Panthers have let him loose down the stretch. Following a Week 12 bye, Carolina has incorporated more read-option plays and designed quarterback runs to enhance the ground game while featuring play-action and movement-based concepts on passing plays. As a result, Newton looks more comfortable in the backfield. The offense has displayed more explosiveness and better balance over his last three games, including a 41-10 stomping of the Saints at the Superdome in Week 14. (Newton, of course, missed Week 15 due to a back injury suffered in a car accident, but he returned to action in last week's win over Cleveland.)

While studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I was impressed with the way offensive coordinator Mike Shula has used Newton as a runner early in games to get the ground attack rolling. The 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year routinely pulls the ball on zone-reads during the opening series, forcing defenders to respect the quarterback run. These concepts not only pull an extra defender away from the box, but they temper defensive aggressiveness on the perimeter, due to concerns over the quarterback or running back squirting through an uncovered gap on a blitz.

In the following play, taken from the Week 14 win at New Orleans, Newton lines up in the middle of a shotgun split-back formation. After the snap, Newton sticks the ball in RB Jonathan Stewart's belly and reads the reaction of the defensive end. Tight end Greg Olsen runs across the formation to execute a slip block on the first defender at the second level. Newton pulls the ball, follows Olsen around the corner and weaves through traffic for a big gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

The Panthers also have incorporated a few naked bootlegs with run-pass options for Newton on the perimeter. These concepts allow the big-bodied playmaker to use his legs or arm to exploit an overaggressive defense -- particularly in the red zone, where defensive coordinators routinely ratchet up the pressure.

In the play just below, taken from Carolina's Week 16 win over Cleveland, the Panthers are aligned in a power-I formation to the left. Newton fakes a handoff to Mike Tolbert in the backfield, then takes off on a naked bootleg to the right. The quarterback sprints around the corner and uses a timely block from Olsen at the goal line to score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

The Panthers have set Newton up for success by sprinkling more play-action into their game plan. The clever utilization of run-action fakes draws linebackers and safeties to the line, creating huge windows for receivers on intermediate routes. Additionally, these play-action passes simplify reads for the quarterback, leading to increased efficiency and production from Newton.

In the following play, taken from the Saints game, the Panthers are aligned in a tight I-wing formation out of "23" personnel (2 RBs and 3 TEs). Newton is instructed to fake an inside handoff to Stewart, with Olsen running a corner route as part of a snag passing concept. When Newton sticks the ball in Stewart's belly, the Saints' linebackers rush to the line, allowing Olsen to sneak past the defense. Newton quickly reads the reaction of the defenders assigned to cover the fullback in the flat and tosses a teardrop to Olsen for a 16-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

The Panthers have incorporated a number of play-action passes off zone-read action to further simplify the passing game for Newton. Again, hard run-action fakes draw linebackers to the line, leaving vacant areas for receivers to fill. In addition, the run fakes create easy one-man reads for Newton, allowing him to be quick and decisive with his throws.

In the next play diagram, also pulled from the Saints game, the Panthers break the huddle in a full-house backfield with Newton in the shotgun. Philly Brown is running a skinny post on the right, with Newton executing a hard play fake in the backfield. The hard fake pulls several defenders near the line, leaving an open window for Brown on the post. Newton sees the safety vacate the area and delivers a dart to Brown for a big first down (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

With Shula putting together a game plan that perfectly suits Newton's skills as a run-pass threat, the Panthers' offense finally looks like a playoff-caliber unit capable of doing damage against quality opponents.

2) Jonathan Stewart has ignited Carolina's ground game.

The seventh-year pro has shown flashes of greatness throughout his career, but a series of injuries have kept him from fully realizing his potential. The oft-injured Stewart has missed 20 games over the past three seasons, including three in 2014 due to a knee sprain. Consequently, the Panthers rarely have featured Stewart prominently in the game plan, opting to utilize a committee approach in the backfield. While the combination of DeAngelo Williams, Fozzy Whittaker, Tolbert and Stewart was certainly imposing on paper, the shared workload prevented Shula from leaning on a designated runner in tough times.

Since Stewart rose to the feature role in Week 13 -- thanks in part to another injury for Williams -- the hard-nosed runner has put the Panthers' ground game on his back. He has amassed 437 rushing yards, averaging 5.6 a pop. The steady production between the tackles has helped the Panthers regain the physical identity that sparked their run to the NFC South title a season ago. Most importantly, the consistent running game has relieved Newton of the pressure to carry the offense on the strength of his right arm, and it's helped protect a defense that's breaking in a number of first-year players.

From a tactical standpoint, the Panthers are using Stewart on an assortment of inside- and outside-zone plays, with Newton lined up in shotgun and under center. Newton is instructed to carry out his fakes on shotgun running plays and execute bootleg fakes on traditional runs; this causes the defense to pause for a count before pursuing Stewart, leading to many big gains from the hard-charging runner. In addition, the increased use of shotgun runs puts Stewart in his comfort zone, given his past experience as the feature back in Oregon's spread offense. While every NFL running back is expected to produce positive gains from wherever he lines up, there is a subtlety required to run effectively on shotgun/zone-read concepts. Runners must be able to make decisive downhill cuts while running laterally on zone plays, to attack the creases along the front line and consistently pick up positive yards.

Stewart is an exceptional runner out of the shotgun, particularly on north-south plays between the tackles. He attacks creases at the first sign of daylight, but he's patient enough to wait for holes to develop beyond the point of attack. Watching Stewart over the past few weeks, it's apparent he has found his groove as a runner in this offense. He has produced a number of explosive runs (12-plus yards) on inside running plays, displaying the speed, burst and acceleration to blow past defenders on the second level.

In the following play, grabbed from the Saints game, the Panthers motion into an offset-I formation, with Stewart positioned on the right as a halfback. Newton executes a read-option with his eyes on the defender at the end of the line of scrimmage, outside linebacker Parys Haralson. When Haralson runs up the field to attack Newton, the quarterback slips the ball to Stewart on an inside-zone play. With Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson racing to the pitch man, Jerricho Cotchery, Stewart explodes through a crease on the way to a 69-yard touchdown (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

In the next play, taken from the Browns game, Stewart exhibits patience, poise and explosiveness on a traditional outside-zone run. Aligned as the feature back in a dubs formation, Stewart takes the handoff heading left on an outside zone. He patiently runs behind his lead blocker before attacking a crease against a fast-flowing defense. Stewart splits the gap and weaves through traffic on his way to a 30-yard gain and critical first down for the Panthers(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

Given Stewart's effectiveness and production as the feature back in the Panthers' offense, it makes sense for Shula to feed his veteran runner early and often against the Falcons. Stewart has hit the 20-carry mark in each of the Panthers' last three games; Shula should make it a point to extend this to four straight games on Sunday. The Falcons have been vulnerable against the run for much of the season, and a successful ground attack would allow the Panthers to play keepaway from Matt Ryan and Co.

3) The Panthers' young and athletic defense is rounding into form.

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It's rare that a defense gets better by playing a host of youngsters in the back end, but that is the case with the Panthers. The insertion of rookies Bene' Benwikere and Tre Boston into the starting lineup -- at cornerback and safety, respectively -- has shored up the unit's biggest weakness and added some much-needed playmaking ability to the secondary.

Benwikere, the Panthers' fifth-round pick in May, is already viewed as the team's best cover corner. He is an instinctive defender with a knack for finding the ball down the field. Additionally, he is an underrated athlete capable of staying stride-for-stride with explosive receivers on vertical routes. Benwikere exhibits the savvy, instincts and awareness to anticipate routes and attack errant throws in his area. Most crucially, he is a resilient player with the mentality to weather a barrage of throws in his direction. Given the daunting challenge of defending the Falcons' receiving corps, particularly Julio Jones, Benwikere will need to take his game up a notch for the Panthers to contain an offense that's been rolling down the stretch.

Boston, the Panthers' fourth-round pick, has been a steady force in the middle of the field. He flashes the speed and quickness to get over the top on deep throws, while also displaying the instincts and awareness to make plays on intermediate routes between the hashes. Boston's also an aggressive run defender willing to mix it up when runners slip through creases; his ability to serve as the last line of defense is essential to Carolina's success.

What's the key to Carolina's defensive resurgence over the past three weeks? The collective efforts of the young defensive backs combined with the solid play of a front seven that's peaking at the right time. The Panthers currently rank 10th in total defense, and they've held opponents to just 13.3 points per contest during this three-game winning streak.

Against the Falcons, the Panthers must make it a point to slow down Jones. Matt Ryan's go-to guy is an explosive playmaker on the perimeter with the speed and acceleration to blow the top off coverage on vertical routes. Of course, he also possesses the running skills to hit home runs off catch-and-run tosses.

The Pro Bowl receiver does the majority of his damage on slants, sluggos (slant-and-go), square-ins and comebacks against one-on-one coverage. He is exceptional at working free against tight coverage, which makes him a nightmare to defend in man. Additionally, he is adept at finding soft spots in zones and quickly races away from defenders after the catch. If the Panthers' young defensive backs are unable to contain Jones on his favorite routes, it could be a long day in the Georgia Dome. Given the importance of containing Jones and disrupting the Ryan's rhythm, the Panthers' playoff hopes could hinge on the performances of Benwikere and Boston in the back end.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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