ATLANTA - It's not the way the Carolina Panthers would've liked to end 2017, but even after a 22-10 loss to the Falcons, Carolina will beginn the new year with postseason play for the fourth time in five seasons.
"We missed some opportunities," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We had some balls ricochet off hands and get intercepted. We missed some throws. A lot of things happened that didn't work in our favor."
Matt Bryant booted five field goals in the second half to propel Atlanta into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. The Panthers are the No. 5 seed, and both NFC South teams will hit the road for wild card games next weekend. The Panthers will visit the Saints on Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET, after the Falcons visit the NFC West champion Rams on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. This marks the first time three teams in the same division have qualified for the NFC playoffs since the NFC East put three in 10 years ago.
"To me it just shows you how strong and competitive we've been," Rivera said of the NFC South. "It's been a good division. The last two NFC representatives have been us and Atlanta. New Orleans has done it in the past. I just think it's a good division right now."
Quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers offense never shifted out of first gear in the first half. After falling behind a touchdown on the Falcons' opening drive, Newton began the game 0-for-9 passing, the poorest start not only in his career but also in franchise history.
The trend continued into the second quarter, but when Newton did finally complete his 10th attempted pass to running back Christian McCaffrey for minus-3 yards, it spurred Carolina's game-tying scoring drive. The Panthers moved the chains on fourth down and converted on third down three times during the drive, including a including a 27-yard completion to wide receiver Brenton Bersin on third-and-23. Ironically, Newton finished the drive completing all seven of his passes after finding wide receiver Devin Funchess in the end zone for a 4-yard score.
"That's football as a whole," Newton said. "Knowing that we willed a score going for it on fourth down. Coming back from a sack, third-and-long and persevering through that. We need to keep that same type of mentality, that same type of focus through the drive and hopefully it will be better next time."
That sent the teams to halftime tied at 7-7.
"That's a tough start," Rivera said of Newton's 0-for-9 start to the game. "But then I felt really good about the two-minute drive going down and scoring just before halftime. I would've loved to see us come out in the beginning of the third quarter and make something happen, but unfortunately we didn't."
Against Rivera's hopes, the Panthers suffered a three-and-out on the opening possession of second half while the Falcons converted field goals on each of their first three second-half drives to build a working margin.
Down 16-7 at the start of the fourth quarter, Newton found Funchess for a 44-yard pickup through air, the largest gain of the game for either team. However, Carolina failed to capitalize on the big play and was forced to settle for 42-yard Graham Gano field goal. The score made it 16-10.
The Falcons drove back down into Panthers' territory on the ensuing drive and rolled the dice on a 56-yard field goal attempt. To Carolina's dismay, Bryant's kick sailed through the uprights with distance to spare and all but ended the Panthers' hopes of topping the Falcons in the season finale. Atlanta added another field goal for insurance and intercepted Newton twice more to end Carolina's final two drives.
"There's no need to panic. The great thing about this situation is we have another opportunity that I'm looking forward to," Newton said of the Panthers' wild card matchup with the Saints next Sunday.
"It's all about growth. There's no need to sob over something I know I could've been better at. These are the days pointing the blame, pointing the finger, and even being harsh on yourself - you stay stagnant. Right now we need to turn the page extremely fast, and I'm going to do that and focus on the next opponent."
AP Photos from Carolina's loss to Atlanta in Week 17.