by Anthony Harrison

Before launching into this first installment of Paw Prints, an introductory explanation of what you’re about to read:

When writers want to write something, they absolutely must do it or it drives them insane like those fly larvae that burrow and fester in the brain. And as a sportswriter, I cannot sit idly by as our state’s professional football team keeps going undefeated. I cannot not write about such a momentous, historic occasion.

I want to cover this run for as long as it lasts. I’m going to write about the Panthers every week for as long as they’re playing. They are looking to be the team to beat, not only in the regular season, but the playoffs and — dare I say it? — the Super Bowl.

Y’all, this might go all the way. I believe it will.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I think y’all get the point, anyway.

So allow me to backtrack to Sunday, Dec. 13.

On the way to Grey’s Tavern in downtown Greensboro, where I’d be meeting my friend Lamar to watch the game over lunch, I began thinking about the possible final score of the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers.

I settled on 31-20.

Here’s how I figured it: While the Falcons had been slipping — on a five-game losing streak, “slipping” is a kind way to put it — quarterback Matt Ryan still seems able to move the football forward at his leisure. And I figured they’d be playing hard, seeing as the Panthers-Falcons rivalry is as bitter as it gets in the NFC South.

But I still figured the Panthers would win.

In short, I figured the Falcons would make it a game before tiring out in the face of the withering Carolina defense.

Boy, was I wrong.

As Lamar and I enjoyed lunch, we also enjoyed what transpired in the first quarter: the most dominant offensive performance by any team of the year and in Panthers history.

Running back Jonathan Stewart flew over the line for a rushing touchdown. Quarterback Cam Newton — Killa Cam — flung a pass to wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for a 74-yard touchdown reception on the next drive. Ginn then caught another reception for a 46-yard touchdown.

Three drives. Three touchdowns. In one quarter. And the Falcons hadn’t even threatened our red zone.

Lamar turned to me as we watched, jaws on the floor.

“You wanna adjust your score prediction?” Lamar asked over his chicken tenders.

I ruminated.

“52-10,” I determined. “The Falcons will score, but this is looking insane.”

Sure enough, as the first-half clock ticked to a close, Killa Cam sniped a 4-yard pass between Falcon heads and limbs to wide receiver Ed Dickson for a touchdown. It was a throw that defied logic, physics and explanation.

There need be no more conversation about Cam’s throwing ability after this first-half tour de force. But it’s funny: His numbers weren’t insane, with 265 yards on 15-of-21 passing. He didn’t do great on the run, either — somehow, the Falcons stymied Newton’s legwork, and that’s about it.

Yet, with the Panthers ground game streaking on 100-plus-yard rushing games by the dozen, the combination of solid rushing with solid passing only creates a lethally diverse offense that wins game after game after game. In his weird way, Killa Cam changes what it means to be an on-fire quarterback.

So the Panthers scored four touchdowns in the first half. And the Falcons had no answer.

As Carolina drew its brakes in the second half, Lamar occasionally asked for amended score predictions, and I kept giving them, but the second column was always the same, and my answer was always the same.

“The Falcons are going to score,” I said “They have to.”

But the Panthers defense was tight as a snare drum, all the way around.

Ryan got sacked five times, making this at least the third game this season I can rattle off the top of my head in which that’s happened.

And they took the ball away like a schoolyard bully, just like they’ve been able to do all season long.

Case in point: In the last seconds of the game, free safety Kurt Coleman made an interception, his sixth in as many games.

And this made me sputter.

I kept thinking to the very end that Atlanta would score. Ryan would throw a hail-Mary missile. Their defense would take the ball away with good field position. They would at least get into field-goal range and put three on the board.

But it never happened, and Kurt Coleman ended any and all hope for the Falcons.

I was left almost confused. This was no Cardiac-Cats nail-biter. We shot the Falcons down like sitting ducks.

The Panthers played what Newton referred to as their most-complete game of the season. And I don’t care what Tony Kornheiser or any other naysayers might quip: It doesn’t matter who you’re beating if you’re beating all comers with a flourish from both sides of the line of scrimmage.

That’s precisely what the Panthers did against the Falcons. They shut out their fiercest divisional rivals, a team that started 5-0 and was seemingly the Panthers’ harshest challenge in the home stretch.

What else is there for the Cardiac Cats to do than keep pounding their way to the playoffs?

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