ATLANTA - The Carolina Panthers head to the playoffs as NFC South champions and will bring a ferocious pass rush with them.
The Panthers pummeled Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan for nine sacks and captured their first division title since 2008 with a 21-20 win over the Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
With the win, the Panthers (12-4) clinched the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. Carolina enters the postseason as the second seed in the conference. Seattle clinched the top spot in the NFC by knocking off the St. Louis Rams later Sunday.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw two touchdown passes, including a 7-yard bullet to tight end Greg Olsen that put Carolina ahead 21-17 with just over four minutes to play in the third quarter. The Panthers' defense would make the lead hold up to end a six-game losing streak in the Georgia Dome.
"Our guys fought all season and did the things we needed to do," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "I think having the home field the players will enjoy, especially the way our fans have come out and supported us. It's a heck of an opportunity for us to make our mark and to be heard throughout the league."
The Falcons finished 4-12, one year after hosting the NFC Championship game. They can look forward to a top-10 pick in the draft after a disappointing season that was marred by injuries to key contributors on both sides of the ball.
"We obviously know where we're at, and I think everybody, from top to bottom, is extremely disappointed with how this season went," said Ryan. "We understand where we are, and we also understand we have a lot of really good players on this team."
The game marked the end of the illustrious 17-year career for Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, who received a standing ovation when he was introduced before his 270th and final game. Gonzalez spent his last five seasons as a member of the Falcons, after 12 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. He retires with the second-most receptions in NFL history, behind only Jerry Rice.
What the Panthers said:
"(Our) DBs and linebackers provided good coverage. They were playing their man tight and giving the (defensive) line a chance to go eat. When you have Greg Hardy eating like he is eating, sky's the limit for the D-linemen." - Defensive end Charles Johnson.
What the Falcons said:
"(Tony Gonzalez) played every game since he's been here, and he's there week in and week out. He's been great in the facility during the week. It's going to be different without him because he's such a big part of our locker room. He's such an incredible leader and an incredible player." - quarterback Matt Ryan on retiring Tony Gonzalez
What we learned about the Panthers
1. The Panthers' pass rush will be one of the biggest storylines of the NFC playoffs and can take them far. Carolina sacked Atlanta QB Matt Ryan nine times, hitting him 14 times, in Sunday's win and they brought pressure from every angle. DE Greg Hardy had four of the sacks, setting the single-game and single-season record with 15. The Falcons are assured of a top-10 pick in the draft. They need a pass rusher and help on the offensive line.
2. Carolina QB Cam Newton struggled with his accuracy against the Falcons, completing 15 of 27 passes for 149 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He missed several wide-open receivers, but made up for it with multiple drive-extending scrambles. Newton needs the reliable veteran presence Steve Smith offers, and is accustomed to the defensive reads afforded when Smith is in the lineup. Smith, who missed Sunday's game with a sprained knee ligament, should be back for the playoffs, coach Ron Rivera said.
What we learned about the Falcons
1. Improving the offensive line will be a top priority this offseason, not only to better protect quarterback Matt Ryan, but also to jumpstart a running game that was the NFL's worst. Atlanta had 76 yards rushing against Carolina, but Ryan was sacked nine times and because of the pressure, the Carolina secondary with plenty of weak links was never truly exposed.
2. The Falcons were successful using the second half of the season as an extended evaluation period for many younger players and know what they have in a young secondary. They aren't as sure of their future on the offensive side. Finding a tight end to replace future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez also will be a priority. Chase Coffman and Levin Toilolo are listed behind Gonzalez on the depth chart, but don't be surprised to see the Falcons grab another tight end in the draft. Gonzalez is retiring after 17 seasons, the last five as a member of the Falcons.