Carolina Panthers win NFC South, earn first-round bye

When everything seemed hopeless, they continued to believe. Almost three months ago, Carolina stood with a record of 1-3 after a brutal loss at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals. Not many people outside the Panthers’ locker room thought the team had any chance of saving the season or even saving Ron Rivera’s job as head coach. There were even some reports that the Panthers had already started compiling a list of possible candidates to replace Rivera.

It’s safe to say that list has been torn up. Winning 11 of your last 12 games will do that. “Everybody wrote us off. They said, ‘The Carolina Panthers should get rid of coach Ron Rivera. We don’t have great enough players to win.’ We started off 1-3 and look at us now,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said following the win.

Carolina Panthers

Players on the Panthers celebrate winning the NFC South.

Yesterday, the Panthers showed why they are a team to be reckoned with once the playoffs start. In a game where Carolina came out very flat, they still found a way to get the win and clinch the division. On a day where the offense couldn’t seem to get out of it’s own way at times, the defense came up huge.

Greg Hardy, set to be a free agent at the end of the season, looked like a man possessed as he sacked Matt Ryan four times on the day while the Carolina D as a whole sacked Ryan a franchise-record nine times. The win helped to erase the bad memories of the loss to Atlanta last season when Matt Ryan connected with Roddy White for a 59-yard reception to help set up the game winning field goal by Matt Bryant.

The Falcons had the opportunity to win the game yesterday but the Carolina defense was able to get one final stop thanks to an ill timed snap by Atlanta. The Panthers now get a well deserved week off while waiting for the team they will play in the divisional round of the playoffs.

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- Greg Hardy’s fourth sack yesterday tied him for the franchise record for sacks in a season with Kevin Greene at 15.

- With the win yesterday the Panthers became the third team since 2002 to start off 1-3 and finish with a top two seed in the playoffs.

- Carolina will play the highest seeded team left after this weekend in the NFC. If the Eagles win, the Panthers will host them in Charlotte, a loss by the Eagles and Carolina will play the winner of the 49ers and Packers. The Seahawks will play the lowest seeded team remaining.

- Steve Smith was seen on the sidelines in street clothes and remains noncommittal on his status for the the playoffs. He did say his knee was getting better and better every day. It’ll take a lot to keep a competitor like Smitty out of the playoffs.

- Jonathan Stewart missed his third straight game with a knee injury. Stewart said he felt good about his chances of returning during the playoffs given the bye week.

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