A vicious pass defense and the legs of Cam Newton helped the Carolina Panthers pick up their first NFC South title since 2008 on Sunday. The 21-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday earned the team a first-round playoff bye.
"It's pretty exciting," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "These guys have fought, and they've put themselves in a position to advance in the playoffs."
Carolina (12-4) sacked Atlanta (4-12) quarterback Matt Ryan nine times, including four by defensive end Greg Hardy. Newton threw for two touchdowns and ran for a season-high 70 yards as the Panthers held on to a one-point lead for much of the fourth quarter.
Atlanta looked to be in control of the game, leading 10-0 before Panthers rookie Melvin White picked off Ryan and returned the interception for a five yard touchdown. Newton and the offense followed up with a 96 yard drive just before halftime to give Carolina a 14-10 lead.
The two teams traded scores in the second half, with Atlanta cutting the margin on a 37 yard field goal with 8:33 remaining in the fourth quarter. The defense continued to pressure Ryan, and managed to contain the Falcons offense to seal the win.
"When we had to make plays we made them," Rivera said. "Our guys were very resilient."Carolina will host a playoff game for the first time since a 33-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals Jan 10, 2009.