ATLANTA -- The Carolina Panthers head to the playoffs as NFC South champions, and they 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. They are the NFC's No. 2 seed, as the Seattle Seahawks (13-3) wrapped up the top seed with a 27-9 win over the St. Louis Rams.
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.
"I look back at myself and say, 'what did I do to deserve this,'" said Gonzalez of his career. "Somebody pinch me because it's been a blast. It's like a dream and I'm thankful for it."
"It has been my pleasure and an honor to have the opportunity to coach, in my opinion, the greatest tight end to ever play the game," added Falcons coach Mike Smith.
Ryan was hit 14 times, but managed to throw two touchdowns, including a 50-yard strike to Roddy White that put the Falcons up 17-14 early in third quarter.
"It was tough, no doubt about it," said Ryan of the pass rush. "It was a good defense that we were going against and a really good front seven, and we made some mistakes. I made some mistakes too, so some of that was on me."
Gonzalez caught two passes from Ryan on Atlanta's first drive, an 11-play, 80-yard march that was capped by a 9-yard touchdown reception by Jason Snelling. It was the first time this season Carolina allowed an opponent to score a touchdown on its opening drive. Gonzalez had four catches for 56 yards on the game.
Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy had four sacks, setting the team's single-game record with 15.
"Consistent pressure from everybody, that's what wins games," said Hardy. "That's what is going to keep us winning."
After a Newton interception, Atlanta tacked on a 42-yard Matt Bryant field goal to extend the lead to 10-0 with 10 minutes left in the second quarter.
The Falcons forced two turnovers in the first half, the second coming at the end of a 59-yard DeAngelo Williams' catch and run. Atlanta cornerback Robert Alford chased down Williams from behind, dislodged the ball, and cornerback Desmond Trufant recovered it at the Falcons' 4-yard line.
But two plays later, Carolina cornerback Melvin White jumped in front of a pass from Ryan and returned it seven yards for the Panthers' first score.
Newton then led a 13-play, 96-yard drive in the final four minutes of the first half and hit a wide-open Ted Ginn Jr. for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 14-10 lead at halftime.
Newton completed 15 of 27 passes for 149 yards, but did more damage with his legs, rushing for a team-high 72 yards.
"Cam thankfully made some really good decisions to run the ball, and they came at the right time," said Rivera. "It's a big part of what we do, and sometimes we have to rely on that."
On the game's final possession, the Falcons were moving close to field-goal range with under a minute to play and no timeouts. But center Joe Hawley's snap caught Ryan off guard. White would recover the errant snap for a 19-yard loss. The Falcons were unable to overcome the miscue.
NOTES: Carolina WR Steve Smith and RB Jonathan Stewart were inactive. Smith sprained a ligament in his left knee last week against the Saints. Coach Ron Rivera has been optimistic that Smith would be available for the playoffs. Stewart, who has a partially torn knee ligament, missed his third straight game. ... Falcons RB Jacquizz Rodgers and LB Sean Weatherspoon were inactive. ... The Panthers sacked Atlanta QB Matt Ryan nine times. Ryan was sacked 44 times this season. ... The Falcons entered Sunday's game with the worst rushing offense and the second-worst rushing defense. ... Announced paid attendance was 70,427.