Panthers flatten Falcons, claim NFC South title

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) celebrates after a touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons in the first quarter at the Georgia Dome.

ATLANTA – It’s not how the Carolina Panthers started the first 12 games of their season, it’s how they finished.

For only the second time in NFL history, a team will enter the playoffs with a losing record and it is the Panthers, who, at 7-8-1, earned their fourth consecutive victory by crushing the Falcons 34-3 with Atlanta native Cam Newton and a resurgent defense authoring a starring role on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.

In recent years, teams that have had the most success in the NFL playoffs have been the ones that have gotten hot at the end of the season. During their current run, the Panthers’ competition – New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Atlanta – don’t exactly evoke excellence (those teams finished a combined 22-42) but in the NFL, wins are wins.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera found nothing strange about his team earning a playoff berth while 10-6 Philadelphia failed to qualify in the NFC.

“No, not at all,” Rivera said. “We were here last year and there’s no reason for us not to be here this year. Again, I’m not concerned about what the record says.”.

It’s worth noting that Carolina dominated two of its final four opponents, with both of those games coming on the road. In addition to their drubbing of the Falcons, they beat up on the Saints 41-10. On Sunday, they stifled the Falcons’ high-powered attack and resembled the unit that helped to lift them to a 12-4 mark last season. The Panthers sacked Matt Ryan six times and pressured him into two interceptions that the Panthers returned for touchdowns, a 31-yarder by Roman Harper and an 84-yarder by Tre Boston.

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Harper was on the Saints team that lost in the playoffs in January 2011 to Seattle, the only other team to qualify with a losing record. Harper said he did not see parallels between this Carolina team and that Seahawks’ squad.

“No, not at all,” he said. “The fact is I don’t even remember that team. The fact is they beat us at home. We’ve got to go out and get us a win. We’re hot a team right now…. The sky’s the limit for this team.”.

Such is the belief among the Panthers that the idea that they do not belong is incongruous to them. Asked if Carolina could win a playoff game – the Panthers will host Arizona in the wildcard round — tight end Greg Olsen arched his brow and scrunched his face into a wry expression.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “Why not?”.

Certainly, it’s hard to imagine a tougher road than the one taken by Carolina, which fell to 3-8-1 after losing 31-3 at Minnesota on Nov. 30. That loss culminated a stretch in which the Panthers went 0-5-1. Three of those losses came to eventual playoff teams (Cincinnati, Seattle and Green Bay) and another came against Philadelphia.

For that reason, linebacker Luke Kuechly said the Panthers “absolutely” deserve to be in the playoffs.

“From what we went through, the hardships we’ve had this year, we battled and we won our division,” Kuechly said. “You win your division, you go to the playoffs. We’re definitely excited for the next step.”.

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For Atlanta, the loss likely spells the end of Mike Smith’s tenure – the most successful one in franchise history — as head coach after seven seasons. In 2008 and 2009, he coached the Falcons to their first back-to-back winning seasons and his teams finished with the top regular season record in the NFC in 2010 and 2012. He owns a 66-46 record but went just 10-22 over the past two seasons. His teams have too often come up short in the postseason where he is 1-4.

If Smith, who came to Atlanta from Jacksonville where he served as the Jaguars’ defensive coordinator, does end up losing his job, then defensive failings will have played a major role. Atlanta’s 32nd-ranked defense was pushed around in the first quarter as Carolina built a 10-0 lead, outgaining Atlanta 164-38.

In this unlikely winner-take-all-game, Atlanta would have qualified with a 7-9 record; instead, the Falcons finished 6-10.

“I’m here as the head football coach until (owner) Arthur Blank tells me anything he different,” Smith said of his status.

While Atlanta often was a team in disarray this season, Carolina has peaked at the right time. Newton, who ran for one touchdown and threw for another, knows this playoff appearance will be different.

“We have to focus in and hone in just a little bit more,” he said. “Silly mistakes are going to cost. Protecting the football is going to be at a premium, scoring is going to be at a premium.”.

As Olsen said, why not?

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