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          === Panthers claim NFC South crown with win over Falcons ===
 Atlanta,  GA (SportsNetwork.com)  - Cam Newton tossed two touchdown passes and
 the  Panthers' potent  defense made life miserable for Atlanta's Matt Ryan, as
 Carolina  claimed  the NFC  South crown with  a 21-20 win  over the Falcons on
 Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
 Newton  completed 15-of-27 passes for 149 yards with an interception and added
 72  rushing  yards on 12  carries for Carolina  (12-4), which secured a first-
 round bye in the playoffs with its 11th win in the last 12 games.
 The Panthers will play at home on Sunday, Jan. 12 at 1:05 p.m. ET.
 The  defense, meanwhile,  sacked Ryan nine times, including a Carolina single-
 game  record  four  from  end  Greg Hardy,  while  also  receiving  an  8-yard
 interception  return  TD from rookie  cornerback Melvin  White en route to the
 team's first division title since 2008.
 "It feels very good. It really does," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera remarked.
 "Our  guys  fought all season  and did  the things we  needed to do. It wasn't
 pretty, but it was well earned."
 Carolina occupies the second seed in the NFC, while Seattle holds the top spot
 in the conference.
 With their postseason hopes long gone, the Falcons (4-12) were looking to play
 spoiler  while also trying  to send Tony Gonzalez out on a high note, with the
 legendary tight end expected to retire at season's end.
 Gonzalez  finished  with four catches  for 56 yards and,  if it truly is over,
 the  13-time Pro Bowler will finish his career with a number of NFL records at
 the  tight  end position,  including  most  career receiving  yards  (15,127),
 most career receptions (1,325) and most touchdown catches (111).
 "Because  I'm old,  my body hurts and most  of the guys know the story with my
 son  Nikko," Gonzalez  said when  asked why  he's retiring.  "He's out  in Los
 Angeles,  he doesn't  live with me. It's  time for me to get back and dedicate
 everything to my family."
 Ryan  threw for  280 yards and two touchdowns with an interception on 28-of-40
 throws  and had a chance to get the Falcons in range for a go-ahead field goal
 when Atlanta got the ball back at its own 12 with 1:20 left in the game.
 With Atlanta down by one, Ryan completed four straight passes to move the team
 to  the 43-yard  line with  just  over 30  seconds  left, but  a botched  snap
 followed by a false start all but sealed the outcome for the Falcons.
 "With all the negative plays we had, we still had an opportunity to win at the
 end  of the  ball game, but we just  didn't make the plays when we needed to,"
 Ryan said. "From that sense it's a little bit disappointing."
 Atlanta  opened  the game much  more effectively, putting together an 11-play,
 80-yard trek that Ryan capped with a 9-yard TD pass to Jason Snelling.
 Carolina's  defense  forced the Falcons  to go  three-and-out on each of their
 next  two touches,  but Newton  struggled  to keep  the offense  on the  field
 throughout the first half.
 The Panthers punted on their first two possessions before the third ended in a
 Newton  interception that  led to Matt Bryant's 42-yard field goal, giving the
 Falcons a 10-0 lead with 10 minutes left in the first half.
 The  Panthers appeared to  get the big play they needed early on their ensuing
 sequence  when  DeAngelo Williams caught  a short  swing pass on 3rd-and-4 and
 weaved his way through the Atlanta defense.
 Just  as  Williams seemed destined for  the end zone, cornerback Robert Alford
 ran  the running  back down  from behind  and ripped  the ball  free, allowing
 teammate Desmond Trufant to pounce on the loose ball at the Atlanta 4.
 However,  Carolina's  defense saved  the day  once again,  as White stepped in
 front  of  an errant Ryan  pass two plays later  and stumbled seven yards into
 the end zone to bring the Panthers within 10-7 with 7:57 left in the half.
 After an Atlanta punt pinned the Panthers inside their own 5 late in the half,
 Newton  and the  offense finally found their footing, manufacturing a 13-play,
 96-yard sequence that sent Carolina into the break with the lead.
 Newton  converted a 3rd-and-3 with a 4-yard scamper early in the series before
 a  21-yard  pass interference  call  against  Atlanta  on 3rd-and-4  gave  the
 Panthers a fresh set of downs at the Falcons' 31.
 Newton  then scrambled  for 11 yards and Mike Tolbert followed two plays later
 with  a bruising  17-yard rumble before Newton capped the march by finding Ted
 Ginn  dragging across the front of the end zone for a 3-yard score and a 14-10
 lead with 19 seconds left in the half.
 The  Falcons forced  a  Carolina punt  to  open the  second  half and  Atlanta
 quickly  made  its way down  the field, aided  by a 25-yard catch-and-run from
 Steven Jackson and a roughing the passer penalty against Dwan Edwards.
 Facing  3rd-and-8  from the Carolina  39 later in  the drive, Ryan found Roddy
 White on a post route for a 39-yard touchdown, giving the Falcons a 17-14 lead
 with 9:50 left in the third.
 Newton  extended  Carolina's ensuing  sequence with a  10-yard scamper on 3rd-
 and-2  before a  late hit out of  bounds against Atlanta moved the Panthers to
 the Falcons' 43.
 After  Newton converted  another 3rd-and-short  with  a 2-yard  plunge up  the
 middle, Williams surged through the line for 24 yards to the Atlanta 8.
 Facing  3rd-and-goal from  the 7, Newton rifled  a strike to Greg Olsen in the
 front  of  the end zone for  a 7-yard score to  put the Panthers on top, 21-17
 with 4:20 to play in the third.
 Following  an exchange of punts, Bryant capped a 17-play Atlanta series with a
 37-yard field goal that brought the Falcons within 21-20 with 7:10 left in the
                                   Game Notes
 Hardy's  15 sacks  this  season tied  Kevin  Greene's single-season  franchise
 record with 15 ... The Panthers registered their fourth defensive score of the
 season  to establish a new team record ... Olsen caught six passes to give him
 73  on the  season, surpassing his team  record of 69 set in 2012 ... Panthers
 wide  receive Steve Smith missed the game due to a sprained knee and is listed
 as week-to-week ... White finished with a game-high eight catches for 91 yards
 ... Williams totaled 108 yards from scrimmage for Carolina ... Ryan became the
 Falcons'   all-time   leading  passer  with  23,471  yards,  surpassing  Steve
 Bartkowski's mark of 23,470 yards.
 12/29 22:01:46 ET