ATLANTA — Cam Newton ran the whole game, so the Panthers’ quarterback wasn’t about to stop Sunday after the Panthers clinched their first division title in five years.
After finishing a TV interview minutes after the 21-20 win against the Atlanta Falcons, Newton ran along the wall of the Georgia Dome, slapping hands with some of the thousands of Panthers’ fans who made the drive down Interstate 85.
Newton worked his way to the visitors locker room, where he was greeted by the blaring notes of “I’m a King” by T.I. and by teammates wearing black “division champions” hats.
The Panthers are back in the playoffs after a five-year absence, and Newton said they plan on staying a while.
“We’re past due for this opportunity. We have it. We know we have to seize the moment,” Newton said after mentioning everyone from owner Jerry Richardson to the team’s coaches and fans. “I’m excited. I’m ecstatic about it.
“And we’re not done here yet.”
The Panthers (12-4) joined the 1996, 2003 and 2008 teams as the franchise’s only division winners and clinched a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. Carolina is the No. 2 seed in the NFC behind Seattle (13-3), and will host a playoff game at Bank of America Stadium the weekend of Jan. 11-12.
A Panthers team that started 1-3 won 11 of its final 12 games to match the ’96 and ’08 teams for the most regular-season wins in franchise history.
“Everybody wrote us off. They said, ‘The Carolina Panthers should get rid of coach Ron Rivera. We don’t have great enough players to win.’ We started off 1-3 and look at us now,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “We’re 12-4. We won our division. We’ve got a first-round bye. Now we’ve got to get this out of our system and get ready to see who our opponent is.”
Defensive end Charles Johnson wasn’t interested in looking back.
“I ain’t worried about where we come from, I’m worried about where we’re headed,” he said “We’re trying to do something better than what we’ve been doing. I ain’t worried about the past. I’m worried about now.”
Johnson was part of a defense that sacked Matt Ryan nine times, the most Ryan had gone down in a game and a Panthers’ single-game record.
Defensive end Greg Hardy contributed four of the sacks, breaking Johnson’s single-game record of 3.5 set last season at Atlanta. Hardy finished with 15 sacks, which tied Kevin Greene’s Panthers’ single-season mark from 1998.
Hardy’s season-ending flourish – he had eight sacks during the past three games – comes at an opportune time: The former sixth-round pick is set to become a free agent this offseason.
Hardy’s value could continue to rise with a strong postseason.
“I’m talking about championships right now,” Hardy said. “They pay a whole lot more for that.”
While the Panthers were beating up Ryan, Newton kept scrambling away from the Falcons’ pressure despite playing on an ankle he sprained last week in the win against New Orleans.
Newton was the game’s leading rusher with 12 carries for 72 yards – both season highs – and threw for a pair of touchdowns. Newton was sacked once – on a play when he ran out of bounds for no gain.
His ankle apparently was OK.
“It was great. It worked out fine,” Newton said. “But I can’t keep making a living running as many times as I did. But if the game plan or the defense gives me that opportunity, (I’ll) take it.”
The Panthers erased an early 10-0 deficit, thanks in large part to cornerback Melvin White. The undrafted rookie bailed out running back DeAngelo Williams, who fumbled at the end of a 56-yard catch, by intercepting Ryan two plays after the fumble and returning it 8 yards for a touchdown.
Newton’s 7-yard touchdown strike to tight end Greg Olsen gave the Panthers a 21-17 third-quarter lead. Matt Bryant pulled Atlanta to 21-20 with a 37-yard field goal midway through the fourth quarter.
The Falcons began their final drive at their 12 with 1 minute, 20 seconds remaining and out of timeouts.
Four Ryan completions moved Atlanta to its 43 with 31 seconds left. But on first-and-10, the Panthers’ fans in attendance created a dome-field disadvantage for the Falcons.
With Ryan barking out the Panthers’ defensive front and coverage from the shotgun, center Joe Hawley thought he heard Ryan yell the cadence. Hawley snapped the ball before Ryan was ready, and the ball rolled 16 yards before running back Jason Snelling fell on it at the 27.
“It was just miscommunication. You hate for it to happen at that time,” Ryan said. “It wasn’t the right time to not be on the same page.”
Several Panthers players said it seemed the Carolina fans were louder than the Falcons’ at times Sunday.
“That was a first for me, especially in this place,” center Ryan Kalil said. “It was unbelievable. It felt like a home game.
“I’d seen that in years past, but in our stadium.”
Added safety Mike Mitchell: “That’s why they messed the snap up. That was a huge advantage for us. Our crowd was awesome, coming down here to Atlanta from Charlotte. It was big-time. That won us the game. They had miscommunication with the snap. That’s huge.”
The win means the Panthers will get at least one playoff game in front of their home fans. Johnson said players don’t want a repeat of 2008, when the Panthers were drilled by Arizona at home in the divisional round after a bye week.
Inside a loud, victorious Panthers locker room, Munnerlyn – one of the smallest players on the team – dared to dream big.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl,” he said. “I feel this defense, we’re one of the best defenses in the NFL. And with our front seven, they’re doing an excellent job. They keep pressure off us in the back end. All we’ve got to do is show up and make plays.”
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