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Newton, Panthers starting to hit their stride

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Newton, Panthers starting to hit their stride

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) After struggling to score points and move the chains for much of the season, the Carolina Panthers' offense has suddenly hit its stride.

Too bad it's too late in the year to make a difference.

At 4-9 the Panthers won't be playing in the postseason, which makes Carolina's 30-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday a little bittersweet.

``This shows what we were capable of,'' coach Ron Rivera said. ``That's the sad part.''

Cam Newton threw for 287 yards and scored on a 72-yard run as the Panthers piled up 475 yards. The second-year quarterback ran for a career-high 116 yards to help the Panthers snap a five-game losing streak against their I-85 rivals.

Said offensive tackle Jordan Gross: ``Our offense today is what I kind of thought it would be all year long. We passed well. We threw the ball. We ran the ball well. We blocked well.''

For Newton, it was his first victory in four tries against his hometown team and he admitted after the game it was a special feeling.

``I think this game allows me to have a little chip on my shoulder,'' said Newton, last year's AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Since Week 9, Newton has 15 TDs (11 passing, four rushing) and two turnovers.

``I think this whole offense is clicking and you know, we've just got to connect the dots,'' Newton said.

Carolina's defense was superb through 2 1/2 quarters, helping build a 23-0 lead and a 356-86 edge in total yards.

The Panthers came in with little to play for except to gain a measure of revenge on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, whom they felt disrespected them after Atlanta's 30-28 come-from-behind win on Sept. 30.

Defensive end Greg Hardy and others were upset when television cameras caught Ryan cursing at the Panthers sideline, telling them to get off the Falcons' field. Hardy responded by saying last week the Panthers were a ``better team'' than the Falcons, adding a variety of trash talk.

After Sunday's win Hardy turned the tables on the Falcons, repeating several times what Ryan told them back in Week 4 as he walked off the field.

At one point Falcons kicker Matt Bryant returned fire at Hardy, saying ``Watch us in January.''

Hardy left the locker room before reporters were allowed in.

Ryan downplayed the war of words.

``I don't pay too much attention to it,'' said Ryan, who threw for 342 yards and two scores with one interception. ``They were better than us today, that's for sure. They came out and played better than us. We're in a position in our season where we've got everything right in front of us, and we need to get back to work and worry about that.''

Said Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: ``It's tough to say that we're overall better than the Falcons because they're 11-2, but I like Greg's confidence.''

The Falcons, of course, are headed to the playoffs and Sunday was a speed bump in what has been an outstanding season.

However, the loss will certainly be of concern to Falcons fans that have witnessed good teams in the past under coach Mike Smith either fade late in the season or struggle in the playoffs.

Smith said he'll use the loss as a ``teaching point'' and that ``we have to play our best football here in the fourth quarter'' of the season.

It was all Carolina in the first half, beginning with the coin toss.

The Panthers hadn't won a coin flip all year until Sunday, causing team captain Jordan Gross to exalt at midfield by thrusting both arms into the air. Including overtime, the Panthers were 0-13 on coin flips.

``I've never seen people cheering so loud for a coin toss,'' Gross said with a laugh.

Carolina quickly took advantage, taking the opening kickoff and going 77 yards in 11 plays with Greg Olsen making a leaping grab in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead.

That set the tone for the first half.

By the time Graham Gano's third field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, the Panthers led 16-0 and had run 45 plays to Atlanta's 13, outgaining the Falcons 270-35.

Led by Newton, who had some big runs on third-and-long, including a highlight-reel 14-yarder in which he avoided three tacklers on third-and-11, the Panthers had 15 first downs to Atlanta's two.

Carolina didn't let up in the second half.

After the Panthers stuffed Atlanta on its first drive, Newton faked a handoff to DeAngelo Williams and raced 72 yards to the end zone, getting an assist from receiver Steve Smith, who took out two would-be tacklers with a big block around the 20. Newton somersaulted into the end zone for a 23-0 lead.

``I had a lot of practice blocking playing for (former Panthers) coach (John) Fox,'' Smith said, referring to Fox's tendency to run more than pass it while in Carolina.

Ryan threw two touchdown passes and Michael Turner ran for one, but the Falcons couldn't catch up.

The Panthers put it away midway through the fourth quarter. After costly defensive holding penalty on cornerback Dunta Robinson, Williams caught a screen pass from Newton and raced 53 yards for a 30-13 lead.

NOTES: The Panthers played without four starters: WR Brandon LaFell, RB Jonathan Stewart, LB James Anderson and DT Dwan Edwards. ... Rivera ended his news conference early after starting to get emotional talking about the comeback of Thomas Davis, who has battled back from three torn ACLs to be a major contributor this season. ... Atlanta had won eight of the past nine games against Carolina before Sunday's loss.

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NHL Power Rankings: A rough week

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USA TODAY Sports

NHL Power Rankings: A rough week

The Caps are coming off of one of, if not the worst week of their season. Washington has now lost three of four games and all three of those losses came in devastating fashion.

On Feb. 11, the Caps hosted a scuffling Detroit Red Wings team and saw the Wings build a 4-1 lead in the second period, a period in which the Caps were outshot 17-2. Washington battled back to tie the game, but ultimately lost in overtime. Tuesday in Winnipeg the Caps held a 3-1 lead in the third period, but allowed the Jets to mount a comeback and tie the game with just 15 seconds remaining in regulation before losing in overtime. Then, of course, there was Saturday's 7-1 blowout at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that had lost eight straight coming into that game.

SEE THIS WEEK'S NHL POWER RANKINGS HERE

To make matters worse, the Pittsburgh Penguins keep on winning and now hold a one-point lead over Washington. So yeah, things were not great.

The bad news is that, with the recent surges of Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and even New Jersey, the Caps have to figure things out fast or they could continue to fall in the standings fairly quickly.

The good news is that they still remain in a relatively good position should they rebound. The Penguins do hold a one-point lead in the standings, but the Caps remain very much in the driver's seat of the division with three games in hand.

Four games separate Washington from the Feb. 26 trade deadline. The Caps will play in Buffalo, host Tampa Bay, play in Florida and host Buffalo. Winning three of those four games, especially if they can beat the dominant Lightning, will go a long way towards putting last week in the rearview mirror. Another tough week, however, could force the hand of general manager Brian MacLellan to make an unanticipated move at the trade deadline in order to keep a playoff season from falling apart.

After a week like that, it's no surprise to see Washington fall in this week's NHL Power Rankings. You can see the full rankings here.

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Game 59: Capitals at Sabres Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

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Game 59: Capitals at Sabres Date, Time, How to Watch, Game Thread

What: Washington Capitals vs. Buffalo Sabres

Where: KeyBank Center, Buffalo, N.Y.

When: 3:00 p.m. ET

How to Watch: Capitals-Sabres will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington (Channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals-Sabres game on NBC Sports Washington's live stream page.

You can also stream the game online with no cable TV subscription on fuboTV (try for free!).

WHEN IS THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME?

The Capitals (33-18-7) take on the Sabres (17-31-11) Monday, February 19 at 3:00 p.m. ET in Buffalo.

WHAT CHANNEL IS THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME ON?

The Capitals-Sabres game will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. Coverage kicks off with Capitals FaceOff at 2:00 p.m. followed by Caps GameTime at 2:30 p.m. Stay with NBC Sports Washington for Caps Extra following the game, Caps Overtime at 6:00 p.m. and Caps in 30 at 7:00 p.m. for all your postgame coverage. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

2:00 p.m. — Caps FaceOff
2:30 p.m. — Caps GameTime
3:00 p.m. — Capitals at Sabres
5:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
6:00 p.m. — Caps Overtime
7:00 p.m. — Caps in 30

WHAT ARE THE PROJECTED LINES FOR THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME?

Here are the projected lines for the Caps-Sabres game:

Forwards
Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Evgeny Kuznetsov - T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly - Lars Eller - Andre Burakovsky
Chandler Stephenson - Jay Beagle - Devante Smith-Pelly

Defensemen
Christian Djoos - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik - Madison Bowey

Philipp Grubauer starts with Braden Holtby as backup

Scratches: Alex Chiasson, Taylor Chorney

WHERE CAN I STREAM THE CAPITALS-SABRES GAME?

The Capitals-Sabres game, as well as Caps GameTime and Caps Extra, is available to stream live here through NBC Sports Washington's live stream page and is available to authenticated NBC Sports Washington subscribers on desktops, tablets, mobile devices and connected TVs anywhere in the United States.

The game is also available to stream, along with all the pregame and postgame shows, on fuboTV (try for free).

CAPITALS-SABRES OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals correspondent JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.