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Panthers' perfect season ends in loss to Falcons

The Atlanta Falcons spoiled the Carolina Panthers' quest for a perfect season, squeezing out a 20-13 victory in Week 16. Here's what you need to know:

  1. The Panthers (14-1) extended their streak of 100-yard rushing performances to 28 games, but the Falcons' defense eliminated Ted Ginn and smothered Cam Newton's downfield passing attack. Credit rookie edge rusher Vic Beasley for leading a front seven that battered Newton and kept everything near the line of scrimmage. Down seven points in a one-minute drill, Newton was stripped by Beasley to end the game. The Panthers' first regular-season loss in the past 392 days means the Cardinals still have a shot at the NFC's No. 1 seed with wins over the Packers and Seahawks and a Carolina loss to Tampa Bay.

"We did not take this team lightly," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said after the game, via NFL Media's Jeff Darlington. "Truth of the matter is, we came in and played hard. They played better. They coached better."

  1. This was not a fluke performance for the Falcons (8-7). They left nine points on the field with a third-down drop from Julio Jones, a shanked field goal from Shayne Graham and an errant snap recovered by Josh Norman. Matt Ryan and Roddy White came through with their best performances of the season while Julio Jones produced the play of the game, out-jumping Luke Kuechly and Kurt Coleman for a 70-yard touchdown. Grimacing through an early-game rib injury, Ryan withstood a handful of drops to win the time of possession battle and out-gain the Panthers, 373 yards to 268.

The Falcons' faint postseason hopes were dashed after the Vikings beat the Giants on Sunday night.

  1. One week after breaking White's single-season franchise record for receptions, Jones broke his own single-season mark for yards. He's now up to 127 receptions for 1,722 yards and eight touchdowns, with a matchup versus the Saints' historically inept pass defense on the horizon. Although Norman wasn't in coverage on the long touchdown, Jones still won this matchup handily. Per Next Gen Stats, Jones had seven receptions for 91 yards on eight targets with Norman in coverage.

That's two straight weeks in which Norman has lost the coverage battle to elite wide receivers. We know Norman is a high-level cornerback. The bigger issue for Carolina's pass defense has been the loss of slot corner Bene' Benwikere, exposing the recently signed Cortland Finnegan as a weak link.

  1. Channeling dual-threat quarterbacks Steve Young and tough-as-nails Steve McNair, Newton became the first player in NFL history with at least 30 passing touchdowns and eight rushing scores in a single season. Although he no longer has the undefeated season in his corner, he's still the heavy favorite for MVP honors.
  1. Rivera won't have the luxury of resting his stars in the regular-season finale now that Arizona won in the late afternoon game. It will be interesting to see how the Panthers handle the backfield breakdown after losing Fozzy Whittaker to an ankle injury in the fourth quarter. If Jonathan Stewart isn't ready to return from a foot injury, Cameron Artis-Payne and Mike Tolbert would likely shoulder the workload.
  1. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short racked up two more sacks, bringing his season total to 11. Aaron Donald and Geno Atkins are the no-brainer All-Pro selections at the position, but Short isn't far behind that dynamic duo in a true breakout season.
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