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Wednesday May 6th, 2015 3:34AM

Panthers clinch NFC South, edge Falcons 21-20

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- Carolina's blueprint for playoff success has been set: Let the sack-happy defense lead the way and hope dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton can add just enough offense.

Newton threw two touchdown passes, Greg Hardy had a team-record four sacks and the Panthers clinched their first NFC South title in five years by beating the Atlanta Falcons 21-20 on Sunday.

"Now we can cross that goal off," said linebacker Luke Kuechly. "Now we can concentrate, get guys healthy and get ready to go."

Making their first trip to the playoffs since 2008, the Panthers (12-4) secured a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at least one game as the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

"Feels outstanding," said Carolina coach Ron Rivera. "Our guys fought all season and did the things we needed to do."

Newton said it was important to earn the bye in the playoffs. Wide receiver Steve Smith and running back Jonathan Stewart were inactive with knee injuries.

"We've got a lot of guys that we need back that play an intricate role in making this team go," Newton said.

Carolina needed losses by Seattle and Arizona to move up to the No. 1 seed, but the Seahawks beat the Rams 27-9 to secure the top seed.

Carolina set a team record by sacking Matt Ryan nine times. The defense also produced the Panthers' first touchdown on Melvin White's 7-yard interception return in the second quarter.

"It's about the team," Hardy said when asked about his record. "I know we got the team record and that's all that matters."

Hardy said "consistent pressure from everybody" led to the deluge of sacks. Charles Johnson had two, Mike Mitchell, Frank Alexander and Star Lotulelei each added one. Kuechly had a team-leading 10 tackles.

Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez had four catches for 56 yards and was honored at halftime in his final regular-season game. He has announced plans for retirement.

Gonzalez said his farewell game "was great."

"Honestly, it went exactly as I thought it would go except for the winning part," Gonzalez said. "We weren't able to pull it out. ... My career has turned out to be something more than I ever thought and more than I ever dreamed."

Atlanta players spoke during the week about wanting to send Gonzalez out with a win.

"They came out with a lot of emotion, they played very hard, they played for one of their leaders today, for Tony today," Rivera said.

The Falcons led 10-0 early in the second quarter.

Newton recovered from a sluggish start to complete 15 of 27 passes for 149 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Newton threw scoring passes to Ted Ginn Jr. and Greg Olsen and led the Panthers with 72 yards rushing.

The Falcons (4-12) completed their crushing fall from a 13-3 finish and division title in 2012.

Ryan hit 28 of 40 passes for 280 yards with one interception and touchdown passes to Jason Snelling and Roddy White. Matt Bryant kicked field goals of 42 and 37 yards, but the Falcons couldn't overcome the nine sacks.

"It was tough, there's no doubt about it," Ryan said. "It was a good defense that we were going against and a really good front seven and we made some mistakes. I made some mistakes, too, so some of that was on me. We have to be better than that."

On Carolina's first possession of the second quarter, Newton's high pass glanced off Domenik Hixon's hands. Safety William Moore made a diving interception to set up Bryant's first field goal.

After trailing 10-0, the Panthers dominated the remainder of the half and had the better end of an exchange of turnovers.

DeAngelo Williams cut through the line for a 56-yard run but fumbled when hit by Robert Alford. Desmond Trufant recovered at the Atlanta 4.

The turnover only set up a giveaway by the Falcons. Melvin White stepped in front of Harry Douglas for an interception and touchdown return.

A fumbled snap on Atlanta's final possession hurt the Falcons' hopes for a last-minute scoring drive. Center Joe Hawley snapped the ball as Ryan was at the line, pointing at the Panthers' defense and calling the play.

"It was just a miscommunication and it wasn't the right time to not be on the same page," Ryan said.

NOTES: Paid attendance was 70,427 but there were empty seats throughout the Georgia Dome and a large turnout by Carolina fans. ... Smith sprained his left knee during Carolina's 17-13 win over New Orleans last week and was on the field for pregame warmups. Rivera said Friday he expects Smith to be ready for the playoffs. ... LB Sean Weatherspoon (knee) and RB Jacquizz Rodgers (concussion) were inactive for Atlanta. ... Carolina's record for sacks in a game was 3 1/2 by Johnson at Atlanta on Sept. 30, 2012.
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