ATLANTA – In their biggest game of the season, the Panthers played their best game of the season.
Carolina thoroughly dominated the Atlanta Falcons to earn a 34-3 victory in Sunday's winner-takes-the-division matchup at the Georgia Dome. The offense got off to a fast start, scoring 10 points on the first two possessions, and the defense, which pressured Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan relentlessly, sacking him six times, scored two touchdowns.
"I'm very proud of this football team first and foremost in spite of all the things we have dealt with this year," head coach Ron Rivera said. "The adversity we have faced as a football team, the resilience of this football team with the men in that locker room was on display today."
With their fourth consecutive victory, the Panthers are now the first franchise to claim consecutive NFC South titles. Just like last year, they won the division in Week 17 in Atlanta, with hordes of Panthers fan there to celebrate as they trotted off the field.
"It means a lot to this franchise," Rivera said. "That's something for us to build on as we go forward as a football team."
The Panthers jumped ahead early and never looked back.
After a 12-play, 77-yard game-opening drive yielded a 21-yard Graham Gano field goal, Carolina found the end zone on the next series.
Quarterback Cam Newton's 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ed Dickson capped a 10-play, 87-yard drive late in the first quarter.
"It was a check play – run to pass," Dickson said. "Cam did a good job of checking into the pass, and I caught it and stumbled in."
It appeared Atlanta was intent on staying within striking distance. Wide receiver Devin Hester returned the ensuing kickoff 66 yards and would have scored if not for a desperation tackle by Joe Webb.
The Falcons advanced to the Panthers' 3-yard line. On second-and-goal, fullback Patrick DiMarco dropped a wide-open would-be touchdown. Ryan's third-down pass for wide receiver Roddy White fell incomplete, forcing Atlanta to settle for a 21-yard Matt Bryant field goal early in the second quarter. It proved to be their only points.
"It was all about starting fast," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "It was something we harped on. We had to start fast in this dome. You can't let that team get momentum here. That's when they really hurt you."
From there on, the Panthers defense took complete control. They made Atlanta one-dimensional, and the pass-rush consistently affected Ryan in the pocket.
"It felt like we were disrupting him every time," defensive end Mario Addison said. "We dominated the game."
With 4:32 remaining in the second quarter, safety Roman Harper intercepted Ryan's overthrown pass for White and returned it 31 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.
"Our defensive line got good pressure," Harper said. "I saw the receiver start to break, and then I looked up and it was a wobbly ball. I was able to catch it, and then I got some great blocking. It was a thing of beauty. That was complete team defense."
Four plays into Atlanta's next drive, White caught a 20-yard pass over the middle, but rookie linebacker Adarius Glanton stripped the ball. Davis' scoop and return set up Carolina's offense up with first-and-goal at the 4-yard line.
"With the defense playing lights out like they did today and creating turnovers, it makes our job easier," Newton said.
Newton promptly rushed up the middle for the 4-yard score, giving the Panthers a 24-3 lead at halftime.
After Carolina extended the lead with a 48-yard Gano field goal, the game was put on ice thanks to another defensive touchdown in the final seconds of the third quarter.
On fourth-and-five from the Carolina 36-yard line, Ryan lofted a pass for wide receiver Harry Douglas that rookie safety Tre Boston read the whole way. Boston picked it off for his first career interception and followed a wave of blockers 84 yards for a touchdown.
"Once I got past (wide receiver) Julio (Jones) I was like, 'I'm cribbing this,'" Boston said.
The fourth quarter was a prolonged celebration for Carolina and its fans, who made their voices heard as the Panthers (7-8-1) clinched their spot in the postseason.
The Panthers (7-8-1) will play the Arizona Cardinals (11-5) in an NFC Wildcard Playoff at Bank of America Stadium on Saturday at 4:35.
"They deserve this," Rivera said. "We didn't quit. We played hard all the way through and that's why I'm really proud."