Carolina Panthers Win NFC South; Clinch 2nd Seed

ATLANTA – The Carolina Panthers proved it’s not how you start (1-3) but rather how you finish (11-1). The Panthers (12-4) fell behind the Atlanta Falcons 10-0 early in Sunday’s game, but ended up winning 21-20. The win gave the Panthers the NFC South Division championship, earned them a bye in the playoffs, and at least the NFC number two seed. Should Seattle lose and San Francisco win, the Cats would be the top seed in the NFC.

But let’s not worry about that. Just savor the NFC South title for two weeks…at least! This team now joins the 1996, 2003 and 2008 teams as division winners and earned the Panthers at least one home playoff game. Panthers quarterback said this team had been “0-for since he got here” on Fox TV after the game. But today, he can call himself champ!

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton takes off on one of his runs Sunday in the Panthers 21-20 win at Atlanta.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton takes off on one of his runs Sunday in the Panthers 21-20 win at Atlanta. (PHOTO: Charlotte Observer)

The defense made life miserable for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, as the Panthers recorded a team-record nine sacks of Ryan, including four by Greg Hardy alone.

Hardy broke Charles Johnson’s single-game record of 3.5 sacks, set here last season, and tied Kevin Greene (15 in 1996) for the most prolific sack season in team history.

The Panthers finished with 60 sacks on the year, which tied the ’96 team for most in a season.

One thing Atlanta did that no other team accomplished against the Panthers this season was to score a touchdown on its opening drive. It was an 11-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 9 yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Matt Snelling. The Falcons added a 42-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to go ahead by 10 with 10 minutes remaining in the half. Then the Panthers got going.

White’s pick-six was followed by a 13-play 96-yard drive culminating with Newton throwing a 3-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn with just 19 seconds remaining in the half.

Atlanta responded with a 39-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Roddy White with 9:50 remaining in the third quarter to take a 17-14 lead. But Newton was not done. He led the Panthers on a 10-play 76-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen, putting the Cats back on top, 21-17.

In the fourth quarter, Atlanta added a 37-yard field goal by Bryant to get within a point of the Panthers at 21-20, but could do no more. On their final drive of the day, the Falcons were trying to get close enough to kick a potential game-winning field goal, and were driving down the field when disaster hit. A bad snap from center to quarterback led to a big loss and with the clock running down, Ryan tried to spike the ball, but the offense was called for illegal procedure, and, with a mandatory ten-second runoff on the clock that effectively ended their chances.

Atlanta’s future Hall of Fame tight end, Tony Gonzalez, played in his last game of his career. He caught Ryan’s first and last pass of the game, and was the only player representing the Falcons at the coin toss to begin the game. Quite a nice tribute, and the fans rose to their feet and cheered wildly in a salute to Gonzalez.

Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez represented the Falcons at the coin toss. This was his final game in the league.

Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez represented the Falcons at the coin toss. This was his final game in the league. (PHOTO: atlantafalcons.com)

Offensively, Newton, playing on an ankle he twisted last week against New Orleans, was the game’s leading rusher with 12 carries for 72 yards and also threw for a pair of scores. He ended up 15-of-27 passing for 149 yards, two touchdowns and one interception (off a tip).

Olsen caught 6 passes for 42 yards and one touchdowns. Newton’s favorite receiver, Steve Smith, was not available for the game due to PCL (knee) injury. The bye next week gives him a good chance to recover and possibly play in the playoff game in Charlotte.

Trailing 10-0, perhaps the game’s biggest play was made by an unknown. Rookie cornerback Melvin White intercepted Matt Ryan and ran the ball into the end zone for a pick-six, bringing the Panthers back into the game.  The interception was officially recorded as an 8-yard touchdown, but it completely changed the momentum of the game. The Panthers went on to score another touchdown to lead 14-10 at the half.

After gaining the bye into the playoffs, the Panthers will host a yet-to-be-named opponent in two weeks at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. It’ll be fun! Surprises always are…and if any of you thought this team, either as the season began, or as they started 1-3, would be hosting a playoff game…let me know. Personally, I had them down for 10 wins this season…but then again, I had them down for 9 last year and was way off. Much happier to be one short this season!