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 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 can also secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a Seattle loss and a San Francisco win. The Seahawks host St. Louis, while the 49ers visit Arizona on Sunday.
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.
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 17:55:50 ET