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Falcons-Panthers: What we learned

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell (11) breaks the tackle of Atlanta Falcons defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi (96) during the game at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers won 34-10. (USA TODAY Sports: Sam Sharpe)

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell (11) breaks the tackle of Atlanta Falcons defensive end Jonathan Massaquoi (96) during the game at Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers won 34-10. (USA TODAY Sports: Sam Sharpe)

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.

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.

What the Falcons said

“I think everybody is obviously disappointed with where we are at. There’s no question about it. I think there were high expectations for our football team coming into the year, but certainly things have not gone as we would have hoped.” — Quarterback Matt Ryan said.

What the Panthers said

“It’s getting our guys focused in on the opportunity. It really is a great opportunity because this is a very good football team we’re going to play.” — Coach Ron Rivera, whose team plays the defending NFC champion 49ers next.

What we learned about the Falcons

1. The Falcons don’t seem to have the playmakers to make defenses fear their big-play capabilities. Take tight end Tony Gonzalez out of the equation and there were only 14 passes caught against Carolina as an injury-depleted receiving corps has been evident.

2. Quarterback Matt Ryan might be going through one of the most challenging periods of his career. It’s clear he looked out of sorts at times against Carolina. There’s the notion that Ryan will obsess about the mistakes and shortcomings, so putting him in a good frame of mind will be one of the things the Falcons will look to do during the second half of the season. “You feel like you’ve got to make plays,” Ryan said. “I just haven’t made those plays as much as we would like to, as much as we need to.”

What we learned about the Panthers

1. A jolt of enthusiasm from running back Jonathan Stewart is bound to be a good thing for the Panthers, who now have competition at tailback alongside DeAngelo Williams. Stewart was involved right away in the offense in his season debut, with nine carries for 43 yards and three receptions for 22 yards. “It was good to be back with the fellas,” said Stewart, who has been injured. “It’s just a blessing.”

2. Linebacker Luke Kuechly still brings it. After a couple of games when the second-year player’s impact was deemed rather minimal at times (despite coaches and teammates insisting his presence creates adjustments for opposing offenses), Kuechly was prominent again, beginning with an early interception against Atlanta. By the end, he had a team-high eight tackles. “He’s a good play, a real good player,” Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “One of the best in the league and a young, talented player. I love going against guys like that because they bring out the best in me.”