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Panthers pushing for playoff bye

The SportsXchange

CHARLOTTE -- The last time the Carolina Panthers won in Atlanta, quarterback David Carr came on in relief of an injured Jake Delhomme, and Carolina held on to beat the Falcons, who were led by quarterback Joey Harrington. That was Week 3 of 2007.

The Panthers (11-4) have fallen the last five times they have traveled to the Georgia Dome, but if they can snap that slump in Sunday's season finale, they won't have to worry about another road trip for at least another three weeks.

A win over the Falcons would clinch Carolina one of the NFC's top two seeds, giving them a first-round bye and a home playoff game the weekend of Jan. 11-12.

And while many considered last week's win against the Saints the de-facto NFC South championship game, this trip to Atlanta is more than just a glorified bye week.

"They're a lot better than their record shows," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said Thursday. "You look at (quarterback) Matt Ryan, (tight end) Tony Gonzalez, (running back) Steven Jackson, (wide receiver) Roddy White, they've got talent everywhere. So it's not one of those teams you can look at and be like, 'They're not very good.' They've got a bunch of good guys on their team."

The Falcons will also have a good deal of emotion on their side. It could be the final game in Gonzalez's 17-year Hall-of-Fame career, plus Atlanta could help cost Carolina a first-round bye.

"We all want Tony to win; this is going to be his last game, so we want to go out there with a victory for Tony," Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said on a conference call with Carolina media. "Then we just get to shake up the bracket in the playoffs, so that will also be a good thing. We'll be excited to go out there and play and shake up some things in the NFC."

If the Panthers lose for a sixth straight time at the Georgia Dome, and if the Saints beat the Bucs in their finale, Carolina would go from a bye week and a home game, to a wild-card team opening up the postseason on the road.

So while last week's dramatic win over the Saints locked up the Panthers' first playoff berth since 2008, their postseason could be short-lived if they don't end the regular season with a slump-busting performance in Atlanta.

"(Clinching a playoff berth) isn't worth a hill of beans if you can't win the ones that you have to. Yeah, we're excited, just like every other team is excited about being in the playoffs, but we're not going to get too drunk off the high," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "We've got a lot of guys in the locker room that are looking forward to this opportunity to not only prove to ourselves, but prove to everyone else that this is not a fluke."
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