- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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Lucky bounce: When wide receiver Brandon LaFell fumbled inside the Atlanta 10-yard line with a 17-10 lead in the fourth quarter, Carolina coach Ron Rivera had a flashback to the season opener against Seattle. The play was eerily similar to the fourth-quarter fumble running back DeAngelo Williams had inside the 10 against the Seahawks with the Panthers driving for the potential winning touchdown. The difference? Seattle recovered, ending Carolina's upset bid. On Sunday, LaFell recovered when an Atlanta player knocked the ball back into his arms. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton scored on an 8-yard run on the next play to extend the lead to 14 points. The ball often bounces your way when things are going good, and things are going good for a Carolina team that has won four straight.
Fourth-and-1: The Panthers are so effective on fourth-and-1 now that they have defenses totally guessing. For the second time in four games they scored a touchdown on a fourth-and-1 pass. This one was a 14-yard toss to wide-open tight end Greg Olsen on a rollout by Newton to make it 14-3 in the second quarter. Last month at Minnesota, Carolina scored on a 2-yard pass to Steve Smith. The Panthers now have been successful on five of six fourth-and-1 calls. No other team had converted more than five coming into Sunday. Carolina's opponents are 1-for-7 on fourth down.
Lockdown on Gonzalez: Carolina intercepted the first pass intended for tight end Tony Gonzalez because Matt Ryan threw into triple coverage. For the rest of the first half it appeared the Panthers forgot to cover the future Hall of Famer as he caught five passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. On most he was wide open. But the Panthers got more physical with Gonzalez coming off the line in the second half and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott made some coverage adjustments to hold Ryan's favorite target to one catch for 4 yards over the last two quarters.
Fresh legs: Without Jonathan Stewart the Panthers were averaging 3.99 yards per carry and 130 yards through seven games. With the team's No. 2 all-time leading rusher on Sunday, they averaged 4.0 yards per carry for a total of 131 yards. They averaged 32.57 rushes a game without Stewart and 33 with him. In other words, the Panthers didn't alter their approach just because they added another piece to the puzzle. But they did keep fresh legs in the game, which over the course of a 16-game schedule should help.
How far is too far? That's what Rivera is trying to determine when it comes to kicker Graham Gano. The coach didn't hesitate to attempt a 55-yard field goal early in the third quarter, and Gano rewarded him with a successful line-drive kick. "He said he over-swung and hit it right in the middle of the ball, which is kind of scary,'' Rivera said. What's scary is Gano is 12-for-12 on field goals, including 4-for-4 from 50 yards or longer. He also is perfect on all 24 extra-point kicks.