By STEVE REED, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — After struggling to score points and move the chains for much of the season, the Carolina Panthers' offense has suddenly hit its stride.
Too bad it's too late in the year to make a difference.
At 4-9 the Panthers won't be playing in the postseason, which makes Carolina's 30-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday a little bittersweet.
"This shows what we were capable of," coach Ron Rivera said. "That's the sad part."
Cam Newton threw for 287 yards and scored on a 72-yard run as the Panthers piled up 475 yards. The second-year quarterback ran for a career-high 116 yards to help the Panthers snap a five-game losing streak against their I-85 rivals.
Said offensive tackle Jordan Gross: "Our offense today is what I kind of thought it would be all year long. We passed well. We threw the ball. We ran the ball well. We blocked well."
For Newton, it was his first victory in four tries against his hometown team and he admitted after the game it was a special feeling.
"I think this game allows me to have a little chip on my shoulder," said Newton, last year's AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Since Week 9, Newton has 15 TDs (11 passing, four rushing) and two turnovers.
"I think this whole offense is clicking and you know, we've just got to connect the dots," Newton said.
Carolina's defense was superb through 2½ quarters, helping build a 23-0 lead and a 356-86 edge in total yards.
The Panthers came in with little to play for except to gain a measure of revenge on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, whom they felt disrespected them after Atlanta's 30-28 come-from-behind win on Sept. 30.
Defensive end Greg Hardy and others were upset when television cameras caught Ryan cursing at the Panthers sideline, telling them to get off the Falcons' field. Hardy responded by saying last week the Panthers were a "better team" than the Falcons, adding a variety of trash talk.
After Sunday's win Hardy turned the tables on the Falcons, repeating several times what Ryan told them back in Week 4 as he walked off the field.
At one point Falcons kicker Matt Bryant returned fire at Hardy, saying "Watch us in January."
Hardy left the locker room before reporters were allowed in.
Ryan downplayed the war of words.
"I don't pay too much attention to it," said Ryan, who threw for 342 yards and two scores with one interception. "They were better than us today, that's for sure. They came out and played better than us. We're in a position in our season where we've got everything right in front of us, and we need to get back to work and worry about that."
Said Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: "It's tough to say that we're overall better than the Falcons because they're 11-2, but I like Greg's confidence."
The Falcons, of course, are headed to the playoffs and Sunday was a speed bump in what has been an outstanding season.
However, the loss will certainly be of concern to Falcons fans that have witnessed good teams in the past under coach Mike Smith either fade late in the season or struggle in the playoffs.
Smith said he'll use the loss as a "teaching point" and that "we have to play our best football here in the fourth quarter" of the season.
It was all Carolina in the first half, beginning with the coin toss.
The Panthers hadn't won a coin flip all year until Sunday, causing team captain Jordan Gross to exalt at midfield by thrusting both arms into the air. Including overtime, the Panthers were 0-13 on coin flips.
"I've never seen people cheering so loud for a coin toss," Gross said with a laugh.
Carolina quickly took advantage, taking the opening kickoff and going 77 yards in 11 plays with Greg Olsen making a leaping grab in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
That set the tone for the first half.
By the time Graham Gano's third field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, the Panthers led 16-0 and had run 45 plays to Atlanta's 13, outgaining the Falcons 270-35.
Led by Newton, who had some big runs on third-and-long, including a highlight-reel 14-yarder in which he avoided three tacklers on third-and-11, the Panthers had 15 first downs to Atlanta's two.