1:00 PM ET, December 29, 2013
Georgia Dome, Atlanta, GA
ATLANTA -- Carolina's blueprint for playoff success has been set: Let the sack-happy defense lead the way and hope dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton can add just enough offense.
"Now we can cross that goal off," said linebacker Luke Kuechly. "Now we can concentrate, get guys healthy and get ready to go."
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Tony Gonzalez, the most prolific tight end in NFL history, enjoyed a hero's send-off as he played the final game of his 17-year career, Vaughn McClure writes. Blog
Making their first trip to the playoffs since 2008, the Panthers (12-4) secured a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at least one game as the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
"Feels outstanding," said Carolina coach Ron Rivera. "Our guys fought all season and did the things we needed to do."
"We've got a lot of guys that we need back that play an intricate role in making this team go," Newton said.
Carolina could move up to the No. 1 seed with losses by Seattle and Arizona in late games.
"It's about the team," Hardy said when asked about his record. "I know we got the team record and that's all that matters."
Hardy said "consistent pressure from everybody" led to the deluge of sacks. Charles Johnson had two, Mike Mitchell, Frank Alexander and Star Lotulelei each added one. Kuechly had a team-leading 10 tackles.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez had four catches for 56 yards and was honored at halftime in his final regular-season game. He has announced plans for retirement.
Gonzalez said his farewell game "was great."
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"Honestly, it went exactly as I thought it would go except for the winning part," Gonzalez said. "We weren't able to pull it out. ... My career has turned out to be something more than I ever thought and more than I ever dreamed."
Atlanta players spoke during the week about wanting to send Gonzalez out with a win.
"They came out with a lot of emotion, they played very hard, they played for one of their leaders today, for Tony today," Rivera said.
The Falcons led 10-0 early in the second quarter.
Newton recovered from a sluggish start to complete 15 of 27 passes for 149 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Newton threw scoring passes to Ted Ginn Jr. and Greg Olsen and led the Panthers with 72 yards rushing.
The Falcons (4-12) completed their crushing fall from a 13-3 finish and division title in 2012.
Ryan hit 28 of 40 passes for 280 yards with one interception and touchdown passes to Jason Snelling and Roddy White. Matt Bryant kicked field goals of 42 and 37 yards, but the Falcons couldn't overcome the nine sacks.
"It was tough, there's no doubt about it," Ryan said. "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. We have to be better than that."
After trailing 10-0, the Panthers dominated the remainder of the half and had the better end of an exchange of turnovers.
The turnover only set up a giveaway by the Falcons. Melvin White stepped in front of Harry Douglas for an interception and touchdown return.
A fumbled snap on Atlanta's final possession hurt the Falcons' hopes for a last-minute scoring drive. Center Joe Hawley snapped the ball as Ryan was at the line, pointing at the Panthers' defense and calling the play.
"It was just a miscommunication and it wasn't the right time to not be on the same page," Ryan said.
Paid attendance was 70,427 but there were empty seats throughout the Georgia Dome and a large turnout by Carolina fans. ... Smith sprained his left knee during Carolina's 17-13 win over New Orleans last week and was on the field for pregame warmups. Rivera said Friday he expects Smith to be ready for the playoffs. ... LB Sean Weatherspoon (knee) and RB Jacquizz Rodgers (concussion) were inactive for Atlanta. ... Carolina's record for sacks in a game was 3½ by Johnson at Atlanta on Sept. 30, 2012.
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 29: Tony Gonzalez #88 of the Atlanta Falcons is introduced before the game against the...(Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Team Stat Comparison
Passing 1st downs
Rushing 1st downs
1st downs from Penalties
3rd down efficiency
4th down efficiency
|Yards per play||5.0||4.4|
Comp - Att
Yards per pass
Sacks - Yards Lost
Yards per rush
|Red Zone (Made-Att)||2-2||1-3|
|Defensive / Special Teams TDs||1||0|
|TD||08:43||Jason Snelling 9 Yd Pass From Matt Ryan (Matt Bryant Kick)||0||7|
|FG||10:00||Matt Bryant 42 Yd||0||10|
|TD||07:57||Melvin White 8 Yd Interception Return (Graham Gano Kick)||7||10|
|TD||00:19||Ted Ginn Jr. 3 Yd Pass From Cam Newton (Graham Gano Kick)||14||10|
|TD||09:50||Roddy White 39 Yd Pass From Matt Ryan (Matt Bryant Kick)||14||17|
|TD||04:20||Greg Olsen 7 Yd Pass From Cam Newton (Graham Gano Kick)||21||17|
|FG||07:10||Matt Bryant 37 Yd||21||20|
Cam Newton went 2-of-8 against five or more pass rushers Sunday, including 1-of-6 in the first half. Despite the success, the Falcons used such pressure on only 15 percent of his second half dropbacks (38 percent in the first half).[+]
Cam Newton by No. of Pass Rushers Sunday
Cam Newton scrambled six times for 47 yards Sunday, his most scrambles in a game this season. Four of those scrambles came on third down, with Newton picking up the first on three of those plays. Newton entered the week with an NFL-high 12 first downs on third down scrambles. - Newton finished the day with five first down rushes on third down. Vince Young in 2006 was the last quarterback with as many rushing conversions on third down.
The Falcons scored a touchdown on their opening drive against the Panthers Sunday. It was the first time all season the Panthers allowed a touchdown on an opening drive.
Greg Hardy has recorded 3.0 sacks in a game for the second straight week. Hardy had 8.0 sacks the first 14 games of the season.
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