W2W4: Panthers vs. Falcons

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers began a run of four straight wins to end the 2012 season with a 30-20 home victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

They hope to extend their current winning streak to four straight against the Falcons (2-5) in Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Bank of America Stadium.

Here are five keys for the Panthers (4-3), above .500 for the first time since 2008:

Score early: The Panthers have taken a 7-0 lead in each of their four wins, scoring on either their or their opponent's first series three times -- one interception returned for a touchdown -- and second series the other. That allows them to dictate the pace. That'll be particularly key against an Atlanta defense that has allowed only three first-quarter points.

Control the clock: The Panthers lead the NFL in average time of possession at 33:40. They are doing it with the league's eighth-best running game (130 ypg). that gets fresh legs in running back Jonathan Stewart, activated from PUP on Saturday. They're doing it with quarterback Cam Newton completing 77.3 percent of his passes -- most under 10 yards -- during a three-game winning streak.

Let Newton run: The Falcons have struggled against running quarterbacks over the past few seasons, particularly Newton. In two games against the Birds last season, Newton rushed 18 times for 202 yards and three touchdowns. He's coming off a season-high 50 yards rushing against Tampa Bay.

Hit Ryan: Atlanta ranks last in the league in rushing. The Panthers are No. 2 in the NFL against the rush. That in all likelihood makes this a one-dimensional game before it begins. So the Panthers, with ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, need to replicate what the Cardinals did last week when they sacked Ryan four times and hit him 11 times. Johnson got to Ryan for a single-game best 3.5 sacks in the first game between these teams a year ago. Carolina had seven sacks overall.

Give and take: One stat defines both teams more than any. Carolina is tied for eighth in the league in takeaway-giveaway ratio at plus-6. Atlanta ranks 26th at minus-5. If that trend continues this one has a chance to get out of hand.