|Date of game: 12/28/2014
Recap: Atlanta vs. Carolina
Atlanta, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - Cam Newton smiled. As time wound down in a winner-take-all game that turned into a no-care-in-the-world laugher, the Carolina Panthers quarterback waved his arms up and down and nodded.
On the Atlanta Falcons sideline, Matt Ryan grimaced.
Newton's seven-win Panthers are headed to the NFL playoffs.
Ryan's six-win Falcons are not.
Carolina returned two Ryan interceptions for touchdowns and scored 21 points off three turnovers in a 34-3 rout of the Falcons on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Leading since the game's first possession, the Panthers (7-8-1) clinched the NFC South for the second year in a row with the lopsided victory.
They harassed Ryan all day, piling up six sacks. But the Falcons quarterback hurt himself, too.
His overthrown pass was returned 31 yards for a touchdown by Roman Harper in the second quarter to help the Panthers build a 24-3 lead at halftime. And in the third quarter, Tre Boston picked off an underthrown pass and took it back 84 yards to put the game out of reach.
"They played the way you need to play in these types of situations," said Ryan. "They executed at a high level and we did not, across the board."
The Panthers became the first team to win consecutive NFC South titles and made the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time ever.
They will host 11-5 Arizona in a wild-card game next week after winning four straight games to end the regular season. The streak followed a seven-game winless drought that started with a tie against Cincinnati on Oct. 12 and dropped them to 3-8-1 after a loss at Minnesota on Nov. 30.
Newton passed for 114 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 51 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown scramble after a Falcons fumble in the first half.
"This game meant so much to, not only myself, but my teammates," said Newton. "We were playing for so much. We did a lot that a lot of people didn't expect us to do."
Jonathan Stewart carried the ball 13 times for 49 yards while starting again in place of DeAngelo Williams, who sat for the fourth straight game with a broken hand.
Ryan threw 47 passes, completing 29 for 260 yards, including eight to Roddy White for 104 yards. Atlanta running back Steven Jackson missed the game with a quad injury but Julio Jones was active again despite a hip injury, catching four passes for 58 yards.
The Falcons (6-10) eliminated the Saints from the division race with a 30-14 win in New Orleans last week to keep their playoff hopes alive, but will miss the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2006-07.
"Not acceptable at all," said Falcons coach Mike Smith, who wouldn't speculate on his job security except to say that he's the coach until the team tells him differently.
"This is not how you want to finish," he said.
The Panthers continued their recent history of successful Decembers, improving to 12-1 in the month since 2012.
After Graham Gano kicked a 21-yard field goal on the game's opening drive, the Panthers also scored on their second possession when Newton found Ed Dickson for a 5-yard touchdown pass in the final seconds of the first quarter.
The Falcons drove to the Carolina 3-yard line, but settled for a Matt Bryant field goal, and Harper intercepted Ryan later in the second quarter, racing down the left sideline for his 31-yard touchdown.
The Falcons turned the ball over again four plays into the ensuing possession when White was stripped by Adarius Glanton near midfield and Thomas Davis returned the fumble to the Atlanta 9-yard line.
A 5-yard penalty moved the ball closer, and Newton powered across the line on the first play for a 24-3 Carolina lead with 1:47 remaining in the first half.
Gano added a 48-yarder in the third quarter and Boston jumped a pass near the right sideline, then zig-zagged all the way to an 84-yard score with seven seconds left in the third quarter.Game Notes
The Panthers had 17 first downs, only one more than Atlanta ... The Falcons
gained just 288 total yards ... Carolina lost 23-10 to San Francisco in the
divisional round last season ... The Panthers have won four of the last five
meetings with Atlanta.