Updated at: 11/04/2013 2:05 AM
By STEVE REED
(AP) CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Quarterback Cam Newton said the Carolina Panthers didn’t come close to playing their best game Sunday.
And yet they still beat their division rivals by 24 points.
Carolina’s 34-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons was its fourth straight and pulled the Panthers to a game behind division-leading New Orleans in the NFC South.
"That’s growth, and that’s what you need to see," Newton said. "For us it’s coming out each and every day and proving to ourselves that we’re not going to play lights out each and every day, but we still can hold ourselves accountable that if a mistake happens... we’re going to (come back and) make something happen."
Said tight end Greg Olsen: "At the end, beating that team by that margin and not having your `A’ game, that’s a sign of a good team."
Newton was the first to admit he struggled, particularly in the first half.
He had two interceptions, but the Panthers still led 14-10 at the break and put the game away by outscoring the Falcons 17-0 in the final quarter. Newton led five scoring drives. He finished with 249 yards passing and threw for one touchdown and ran for another.
Coach Ron Rivera thinks it’s a good sign the Panthers are expecting more of themselves as a team every week.
"I think it’s an indication as where we’re starting to evolve as a football team," Rivera said. "But we’ve still got a long way to go because we missed some opportunities early in the game and those were a couple of them. Defensively we gave up some big plays. We don’t want to do that. We want to keep it in front of us. If teams are going to score against us they’ve got to earn it."
Five reasons the Panthers defeated the Falcons 34-10 to win their fourth straight game:
NEWTON’S CONFIDENCE: Newton could have gone into the tank after throwing two first-half interceptions. He didn’t. Instead, he led the Panthers’ offense on three scoring drives in the second half. Newton wasn’t happy with his play in the first half but offensive tackle Jordan Gross said he was pleased with the way the third-year quarterback responded. "There were times today where he could have gotten rattled," Gross said. "He took some shots and had some turnovers, but he didn’t (get rattled). He kept on swinging."
ADJUSTING TO GONZALEZ: Tony Gonzalez hurt the Panthers with six catches for 77 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but defensive coordinator Sean McDermott changed things up in the second half. Gonzalez was limited to one catch for 4 yards after halftime. "We came in at halftime and we were like, look, we can’t let this guy beat us," said Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, who gave up a 17-yard touchdown pass to Gonzalez.
STILL RUNNING: The Panthers came in averaging 130 yards per game on the ground and hit that mark again Sunday with 131 yards rushing on 33 carries. Carolina’s ability to move the ball on the ground and sustain drives has been a huge reason for their success this season. The Falcons, on the other hand, came in 32nd in the league in rushing and were limited to 78 yards rushing in Steven Jackson’s second game back from a hamstring injury. Carolina came into the game first in the league in time of possession and did nothing to hurt that mark, holding the ball for more than 36 minutes.
TURNOVER CENTRAL: The Panthers are a combined plus-8 in the turnover battled over the past four games _ all victories. They intercepted Matt Ryan three times and forced the Falcons into a meaningless fumble on the game’s final play. The Panthers are starting to think offensive on defense, scoring on an interception return for the second time in three weeks. Ryan has now thrown seven interceptions in the last two weeks.
PIVOTAL PLAY: When you’re winning games, breaks seem to go your way. And when you’re losing games, well... not so much. That was evident in the fourth quarter when Panthers receiver Brandon LaFell caught a pass and headed toward the end zone only to have the ball punched out from behind by Asante Samuel. LaFell fell to the ground, but the football somehow managed to bounce back into his arms even though three Falcons players were in the immediate vicinity.
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