CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Reverses, including two on one series. Deep passes — even if they were incomplete — to loosen up the defense. Receivers breaking wide open across the middle. Cam Newton running through the opponent’s secondary.
The only thing missing was the dab.
The Carolina Panthers looked a bit like the 2015 team offensively in Sunday’s 20-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons. Newton looked a bit more like the quarterback that won the league MVP award that year, minus his signature dab.
But there was plenty of emotion as Newton tried to keep the Bank of America Stadium crowd into the game, down to walking toward the stands at one point and waving his arms to fire people up.
“The past couple of games I’ve been doing a lot of self-scouting outside of football,’’ Newton said. “This is when the gurus, so to speak, when you go home and everyone is talking about football and you don’t think everyone knows or they’re questioning everything that doesn’t go right, never giving credit for what’s going right.
“But one thing that stuck with me was when the Panthers are emotionless, that’s when … good things don’t happen. So whether you got to fake it, whether you got to do whatever you got to do, if we can get the Bank of America Stadium with a pulse, that’s when we’re at our best and that’s all I was trying to do.’’
There were rough spots, mind you.
Running back Jonathan Stewart fumbled twice in Atlanta territory, keeping the final score close. The Panthers didn’t score until the final two minutes of the first half, when they got two touchdowns to erase a 10-0 lead.
And Atlanta wide receiver Julio Jones dropped a wide-open pass in the end zone that could have changed the outcome.
“Everybody gets a break once a while, don’t we?” coach Ron Rivera said.
But the move to trade No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo on Tuesday to get more speed on the field had to be deemed an initial success.
“That’s one of the things that we need to have, that speed on the field going vertical,” Rivera said.
If the offense can continue to build on what it did against the defending NFC champions, with the way the league’s second-ranked defense continued to play, the Panthers (6-3) should be a threat to win the division for the fourth time in five years.
They remain half a game behind New Orleans (6-2) in the NFC South.
This one didn’t turn because of the new-look offense, though. It turned because the old-look defense stopped Atlanta (4-4) on third- and fourth-and-1 from the Carolina 35 late in the second quarter. That and a 15-yard penalty against the Falcons for a crackback block on fourth down turned the momentum, and the offense seized it.
The defense still was key during the 14-0 run as strong safety Mike Adams gave Newton and company the ball right back after Christian McCaffrey’s first rushing touchdown, a 4-yarder around the left end on a pitch after a fake to Stewart going right.
Newton then became his favorite character, “Superman,” launching himself into the air around the 3-yard line to complete a 9-yard touchdown scramble just as he often did in 2015 when Benjamin was out for the season with a torn ACL.
Newton carried a career-high 132 times for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns that year.
He’s not quite on that pace this season, but he’s now led the team in rushing four straight games and for the 27th time in his career. The only quarterbacks to do so in more games since the 1970 merger are Randall Cunningham and Michael Vick.
Newton finished with 86 yards rushing on nine carries on this overcast day, including a 34-yard run on a bootleg around the left side.
He was able to run freely in part because, with more speed on the field in McCaffrey, second-round pick Curtis Samuel and Kaelin Clay, the Falcons couldn’t stack the box and always dedicate a player to shadow the quarterback.
The running game in general was sharper as Carolina rushed for a season-high 201 yards.
It was far from perfect execution. Newton completed passes to only three receivers even though he threw to six. The tight end didn’t have a reception, and the Panthers were far from the 2015 offense that led the NFL in scoring.
But it was a good first step in life without Benjamin for an offense that scored a combined 20 points the past two games and a team looking for a new identity.
“We knew what we were gong to get from our defense,” Newton said. “Our defense has been so consistent and locked in all year. We knew if we gave those guys some type of pulse or some type of juice to get them going they were going to pin their ears back and go.
“We had some big plays that were taken away or negated, but all in all we did what we had to do to find a way to get a great team win that we needed.”