ATLANTA – Last year, the Panthers hit rock bottom at the Georgia Dome. This year, they donned NFC South Championship hats in Atlanta after a 21-20 victory over the Falcons.
"Feels outstanding. Our guys fought all season and did the things we needed to do," head coach Ron Rivera said after leading Carolina to its first division title since 2008 and a first round bye in the playoffs. "This wasn't pretty, but it was well earned."
The situation was eerily similar to the one the Panthers faced at the Georgia Dome in Week 4 of the 2012 season.
That time, the Falcons took over at their own 1-yard line with 1:09 remaining and no timeouts down 28-27. Atlanta won on a last-second field goal.
This time, the Falcons took over at their own 12-yard line with 1:20 remaining and no timeouts down 21-20.
"Same situation as last year," linebacker Thomas Davis said.
But a lot has changed in a year. For one, there was a lot more blue in the dome this time around.
"It was crazy. Did you see all that blue out there?" defensive end Greg Hardy said. "I loved it."
When the Falcons went to snap the ball from their own 43-yard line with 31 seconds left, the Panther fans made a stunning impact on the outcome.
With the Carolina contingent of the crowd roaring, Atlanta center Joe Hawley snapped the ball to quarterback Matt Ryan in the shotgun. But Ryan wasn't expecting the snap, and it rolled all the way back to the 27-yard line where running back Jason Snelling made the recovery.
After the botched snap, Atlanta was flagged for a false start that carried a 10-second runoff. That left the Falcons with nine seconds to work with at their own 22-yard line.
Ryan completed a short pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez, and time expired as his deep pass fell incomplete on the next play, giving Carolina its first win in the Georgia Dome since 2007.
"That's why he messed the snap up. (Our fans) won us the game," safety Mike Mitchell said. "That miscommunication that they had – that was huge."
It was an uncharacteristic start for Carolina as the Falcons produced an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive on the game's opening possession. Snelling's 9-yard touchdown reception was the first touchdown the Panthers had allowed on an opening drive all season.
After Falcons safety William Moore intercepted a pass that went off wide receiver Domenik Hixon's hands, Matt Bryant extended Atlanta's lead to 10 with a 42-yard field goal in the second quarter.
On third-and-four from the 26-yard line on the ensuing drive, Carolina's offense finally came up with a big play. But it quickly went from an explosive gain to a punch to the gut.
Quarterback Cam Newton completed a swing pass in the flat to running back DeAngelo Williams, who turned upfield for a 56-yard gain. Williams didn't see cornerback Robert Alford coming up behind him, and the cornerback stripped the ball. Cornerback Marcus Trufant made the recovery at the Atlanta 4-yard line.
"Don't feel good about the fumble at all," Williams said. "We harp on ball security. But the defense picked it up for me."
It sure did, courtesy of undrafted rookie cornerback Melvin White.
"He made the play to turn the whole game around," cornerback Drayton Florence said.
On second-and-12 from the 2-yard line, Ryan threw a quick pass to wide receiver Harry Douglas. The throw was off target, and White picked it off and stumbled into the end zone for the 8-yard touchdown.
"We just knew from film study once they get in tight, inside the numbers, they like to run the quick outs," White said. "I read it and just went with it."
The Panthers defense then forced a punt, and the offense took over at the Carolina 4-yard line with 4:17 left before halftime.
Newton methodically marched the Panthers to midfield, mixing the run and and the pass. Then, on third-and-4 from the 48-yard line, Hixon drew a pass interference penalty to advance the ball to the Atlanta 31 with 45 seconds left.
After an 11-yard scramble by Newton and incomplete pass to the end zone, fullback Mike Tolbert took a handoff up the middle and trucked Moore on his way to a thunderous 17-yard gain to the Falcons' 3-yard line with 24 seconds left.
"I was frustrated at the way we were going offensively," Tolbert recalled. "And then I saw the seam, and it was either try to break it for a touchdown or run through somebody."
Interjected Williams: "You chose the right path."
Newton had an easy choice on first-and-goal. After a play-action fake, he found wide receiver Ted Ginn wide open for the 3-yard touchdown to give Carolina a 14-10 halftime lead.
Atlanta took a 17-14 lead in the third quarter when Ryan connected with wide receiver Roddy White for a 39-yard touchdown. But he Panthers answered with a 10-play, 76-yard touchdown drive.
On third-and-goal, the pocket held and Newton surveyed his options before firing a strike to tight end Greg Olsen for a 7-yard touchdown.
"They wanted to take my running ability away. I felt that, I knew that," Newton said. "I wanted to be patient and just allow the receivers to get open. I went through my progression, and Greg did a great job being a quarterback-friendly (target) and catching the ball."
Said Olsen: "That might have been the hardest ball I've ever caught in my career. I'm just glad I didn't drop it."
Bryant converted a 37-yard field goal for Atlanta midway through the fourth quarter, cutting Carolina's lead to one, but Olsen's touchdown catch proved to be the game-winning score.
The Panthers (12-4) enter the postseason as the No. 2 seed in the NFC and will host a divisional playoff game following a first-round bye.
"We've come a long way," Olsen said. "It's been a heck of a ride this year. We have been through a lot over these last couple years together. We just continued to fight when people wanted to rule us out. We continued to press and fight. We're not done."