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Panthers win fourth straight, rout Falcons

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers let their defense do the heavy lifting.

Now, they're hoisting a four-game winning streak.

"Our defense was just playing lights out," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said after a 34-10 drubbing of the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium. "That's growth and that's what you need to see."

The Panthers intercepted three passes, with cornerback Drayton Florence returning the final one 38 yards for a touchdown.

Midway through the season, the Panthers (5-3) are in position to make a push toward the playoffs.

"We're definitely headed in the right direction," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "As a team, we believe in each other and I think that's been the biggest difference for this season. When the offense is not playing well, then the defense steps up. If the defense is not playing well, the offense has stepped up. It has been that way all season long."

Florence's pickoff of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan allowed him to run untouched to the end zone with 8:30 remaining.

Atlanta (2-6) managed only 289 yards of total offense.

"We did a great job in preparing this week," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "The offense scoring early took pressure off us."

The Panthers didn't generate much breathing room until Newton scored on an 8-yard run with nine minutes left to complete a 66-yard drive and provide a 24-10 cushion. The touchdown came one play after teammate Brandon LaFell made a reception, fumbled and then recovered the ball on what became a 30-yard play.

"That was just Brandon keeping after it," Newton said. "He could have stayed there and moped, but he didn't. He went (and got the ball)."

Newton finished with 249 passing yards, completing 23 of 37 passes.

Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Ryan with 1:55 left in the first half, pulling the Falcons within 14-10. There were few other highlights for the Falcons, who have been hindered by injuries.

"Teams know that, too, and they're going to make adjustments," Gonzalez said. "We have to keep going out there and make (our) adjustments."

Ryan completed 20 of 27 passes for 219 yards, with 81 of those yards going to Gonzalez. But he had only one catch in the second half.

"We just needed to know where he was," Kuechly said.

Carolina's Graham Gano capped the first possession of the second half with a 55-yard field goal. He added a 20-yarder with 1:13 to play.

"More excitement came in the second half," Newton said. "We were all in it together."

Davis' interception in the third quarter negated a potential Atlanta scoring drive. It wasn't until the fourth quarter, though, that the Panthers re-established a two-possession margin.

"It was a good three quarters for us," Gonzalez said, pointing out that the Falcons need to find positives to try to build on. "Then it went downhill for us. Not just the offense, but as a team."

The Panthers held a 14-10 halftime lead by using a couple of short drives.

Mike Tolbert's 4-yard run opened the scoring in the first quarter after Kuechly returned an interception to the Atlanta 39.

The Panthers were ahead 14-3 after Greg Olsen's 14-yard catch from Newton on a fourth-and-1 play. That possession began at the Atlanta 34 after Ted Ginn Jr.'s 24-yard punt return.

The Falcons settled for Matt Bryant's 28-yard field goal in the second quarter after a would-be touchdown run was wiped out by offensive guard Garrett Reynolds' holding penalty. Gonzalez caught three passes covering 46 yards on the 70-yard drive.

Atlanta's Robert Alford made an interception in the corner of the end zone with 14 seconds left before halftime to thwart a Carolina scoring threat. The play was initially ruled as an incomplete pass until video review showed that he had two feet inbounds.

NOTES: RB Jonathan Stewart was activated from the physically unable to perform list to play for the first time this season for the Panthers. He posted a team-high 43 rushing yards to go with 22 receiving yards in his season debut. "I spent a lot of time off," Stewart said. "I'm overdue, it feels like." ... The team waived RB Armond Smith to make room for Stewart. ... WR Drew Davis drew the start at receiver for the Falcons in place of WR Roddy White, who was inactive. ... Panthers OG Jeff Byers didn't return after a first-half ankle injury. ... Carolina defeated the Falcons for only the 14th time in 37 meetings. ... The Panthers and Falcons meet again in the regular-season finale Dec. 29 in Atlanta. ... Atlanta is home against Seattle next week. ... Carolina plays next week at San Francisco before a three-game homestand.
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