5 things to know after Panthers beat Falcons 21-20

Cam Newton clinched his first division championship with a big

win in his hometown.

He then celebrated with the large turnout of Carolina fans who

made the drive for the I-85 rivalry. Running toward a large group

of fans in the end zone, Newton looked like he might be planning a

Lambeau Leap. He instead settled for high-fives and pats on his

back as he mingled with fans for several minutes.

Newton threw two touchdown passes, Greg Hardy had a team-record

four sacks and the Panthers clinched their first NFC South title in

five years by beating the Atlanta Falcons 21-20 on Sunday.

”We’ve come a long way,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who had a

touchdown catch. ”It’s been a heck of a ride this year.

”We just continued to fight when people wanted to rule us out.

We continued to press and fight. We’re not done.”

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.

Newton thanked ”all the fans who came out, the thousands and

thousands who came from Charlotte, who were rooting for us today.

It’s an ego-booster. It does a team great when you have a lot of

support like that.”

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 Olsen, and led the

Panthers with 72 yards rushing.

The Panthers rallied from a 10-0 deficit in the second

quarter.

”He stood up in a big-time situation,” Ginn said of Newton.

”It wasn’t going good for us for a while, and he just showed

leadership and showed who he is.”

It was a sweet win, especially coming against Atlanta, the

Panthers’ close geographic rival which won the division in 2012.

Carolina’s sack-happy defense led the way.

Carolina set a team record by sacking Matt Ryan nine times. The

defense also produced a touchdown on Melvin White’s 7-yard

interception return in the second quarter.

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.”

”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.”

Here are five things we learned from the Panthers’ victory:

BALANCED BIG-PLAY DEFENSE: The Panthers’ pass rush can’t be

contained by focusing on one sacks leader. Hardy said ”consistent

pressure from everybody” led to a team-record nine sacks. Charles

Johnson had two, Mike Mitchell, Frank Alexander and Star Lotulelei

each added one. Linebacker Luke Kuechly had a team-leading 10

tackles.

BYE WEEK SHOULD HELP: Wide receiver Steve Smith and running back

Jonathan Stewart were inactive with knee injuries. Smith favored

his knee as he left the field following pregame warmups. Coach Ron

Rivera has already said he expects Smith to be ready for the

playoffs, and the bye week should help.

WHERE’S THE BEEF? The Falcons (4-12) must address many needs in

the offseason, and no weakness was more glaring against the

Panthers than the patchwork offensive line. From the time projected

starting right tackle Mike Johnson sustained a season-ending leg

injury in training camp, the line has seen near-constant

turnover.

Undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder, who ended the season as the

starting right tackle, and second-year left tackle Lamar Holmes

were overwhelmed by Carolina’s front seven. Displaced starting

guard Garrett Reynolds was healthy but inactive. Left guard Justin

Blaylock was the only fixture on the line during the season.

RUNNING ON EMPTY: The Falcons began the day ranked last in the

league in rushing. Steven Jackson and Jason Snelling each showed

flashes of effective running, but the Falcons finished with another

modest total of 76 yards rushing on 20 carries.

Jackson, slowed by a hamstring injury early in the season, was

held without a 100-yard game in his first season with the Falcons.

Jackson had 13 carries for 41 yards, including a 17-yarder.

RYAN’S MILESTONE: Ryan passed Steve Bartkowski to become the

Falcons’ career leading passer. Ryan, completing his sixth season,

completed 28 of 40 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and an

interception. He has 23,472 career yards passing, breaking

Bartkowski’s mark of 23,470 yards.