5 things to know after Panthers beat Falcons 21-20

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 30, 2013 at 3:03 am •  Published: December 30, 2013

ATLANTA (AP) — Cam Newton clinched his first division championship with a big win in his hometown.

He then celebrated with the large turnout of Carolina fans who made the drive for the I-85 rivalry. Running toward a large group of fans in the end zone, Newton looked like he might be planning a Lambeau Leap. He instead settled for high-fives and pats on his back as he mingled with fans for several minutes.

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.

"We've come a long way," said tight end Greg Olsen, who had a touchdown catch. "It's been a heck of a ride this year.

"We just continued to fight when people wanted to rule us out. We continued to press and fight. We're not done."

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.

Newton thanked "all the fans who came out, the thousands and thousands who came from Charlotte, who were rooting for us today. It's an ego-booster. It does a team great when you have a lot of support like that."

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 Olsen, and led the Panthers with 72 yards rushing.

The Panthers rallied from a 10-0 deficit in the second quarter.

"He stood up in a big-time situation," Ginn said of Newton. "It wasn't going good for us for a while, and he just showed leadership and showed who he is."

It was a sweet win, especially coming against Atlanta, the Panthers' close geographic rival which won the division in 2012. Carolina's sack-happy defense led the way.

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

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."

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