CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers still haven't won a close game.
Lately, they haven't needed to.
The Panthers used another strong performance from their defense to overcome an off day by quarterback Cam Newton and a spate of injuries at right guard to roll over Atlanta 34-10 on Sunday at sunny Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers intercepted Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan three times--returning one for a touchdown--and finished with a season-high four takeaways.
The Panthers (5-3) won their fourth game in a row and fifth in six games. Carolina has scored at least 30 points in each of its victories, winning by an average margin of 24 points.
With New Orleans (6-2) losing to the Jets 26-20 on Sunday, the Panthers are within a game of the Saints for first place in the NFC South at the midpoint of the season.
"OK, cool," middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said when told the outcome of the Saints' game. "We've just got to keep winning. That's the only thing it comes down to. It's us playing well and winning games."
The Panthers have yet to beat a team with a winning record, but they'll get their chance. Beginning next week at San Francisco (6-2), five of the Panthers' remaining eight games are against teams above .500.
"We've done enough to get ourselves back on track. But we've got some tough games coming up," offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "Winning this game, I said we'll feel like we're a pretty good team. But the rest of our schedule really just gets harder and we'll see what we're made of."
Atlanta (2-6), which played without injured wideouts Julio Jones and Roddy White, lost for the fifth time in six games.
Ryan, who guided the Falcons to the playoffs in four of his first five seasons, had to go back to his basketball career at Archbishop Carroll High outside of Philadelphia to remember a time he's been on a losing team.
"It's been a while," Ryan said. "We had a bad basketball team when I was in high school. I think we were like 5-25."
Unlike their seven-sack game against Ryan in the first meeting with Atlanta last season, the Panthers didn't get a lot of pressure against him. Their only sack came midway through the fourth quarter by defensive end Charles Johnson.
But they disguised coverages and jumped routes on several of Ryan's throws.
"Either you throw it fast and risk making dumb decisions or you hold it and get hit," Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy said. "They decided to throw it fast and that's what you get--false reads because we disguise. You get all types of things you're not normally going to get when you're holding the ball looking downfield."
Linebackers Thomas Davis and Kuechly had interceptions, and cornerback Drayton Florence picked off Ryan and ran it back 38 yards to give the Panthers a 31-10 lead with 8:30 remaining.
The Panthers struggled in the first half to contain future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez, the Falcons' lone proven receiving threat. Gonzalez caught five first-half passes for 77 yards and a touchdown--a 17-yarder when he got a clean release from Hardy at the line of scrimmage.
The rest of Atlanta's receivers totaled six catches for 62 yards in the first half.
But the Panthers jammed Gonzalez at the line more often in the second half, limiting him to one reception for 4 yards.
"They got into some different coverages in the second half and kind of catered it toward what Tony was doing," Ryan said. "We had some opportunities with some one-on-ones in other spots, and we just didn't get it done."
Panthers strong safety Quintin Mikell said the second-half execution was better against Gonzalez, as well.
"Tony is hard to stop. That's why he's a Hall of Famer. But we just turned it up a little bit the second half and played our technique a little bit better," Mikell said. "We were aware where he was at all times. Obviously, we know that Matt Ryan, that's his go-to guy, especially in crucial situations."
Ryan, who had beaten the Panthers in 7 of 10 previous meetings, was 20 of 27 passing for 219 yards. But he's now thrown seven interceptions in the past two games.
Newton entered the game following the most efficient, three-game stretch of his career. But he tossed two first-half interceptions, ending the Panthers' streak of three games without a turnover. Newton threw for 249 yards and a touchdown on 23-of-37 passing, and also ran for a score.
It was the Panthers' first win in 10 games in which Newton has thrown two interceptions or more.
"I thought Cam, even though his stats maybe aren't as good as the last couple weeks, I was as proud of him today as I've been any game," Gross said. "It wasn't real pretty. He was getting banged around in the pocket. The run game was kind of slow starting and there wasn't just long play after long play. We kind of had to hang in there and take our punches.
"He just kept his composure and was never rushed or stressed out or seeming to feel the pressure, and by the end of the day we were all smiling."
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