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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."
Here are five things we learned from the Panthers' victory:
BALANCED BIG-PLAY DEFENSE: The Panthers' pass rush can't be contained by focusing on one sacks leader. Hardy said "consistent pressure from everybody" led to a team-record nine sacks. Charles Johnson had two, Mike Mitchell, Frank Alexander and Star Lotulelei each added one. Linebacker Luke Kuechly had a team-leading 10 tackles.
BYE WEEK SHOULD HELP: Wide receiver Steve Smith and running back Jonathan Stewart were inactive with knee injuries. Smith favored his knee as he left the field following pregame warmups. Coach Ron Rivera has already said he expects Smith to be ready for the playoffs, and the bye week should help.
WHERE'S THE BEEF? The Falcons (4-12) must address many needs in the offseason, and no weakness was more glaring against the Panthers than the patchwork offensive line. From the time projected starting right tackle Mike Johnson sustained a season-ending leg injury in training camp, the line has seen near-constant turnover.
Undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder, who ended the season as the starting right tackle, and second-year left tackle Lamar Holmes were overwhelmed by Carolina's front seven. Displaced starting guard Garrett Reynolds was healthy but inactive. Left guard Justin Blaylock was the only fixture on the line during the season.
RUNNING ON EMPTY: The Falcons began the day ranked last in the league in rushing. Steven Jackson and Jason Snelling each showed flashes of effective running, but the Falcons finished with another modest total of 76 yards rushing on 20 carries.
Jackson, slowed by a hamstring injury early in the season, was held without a 100-yard game in his first season with the Falcons. Jackson had 13 carries for 41 yards, including a 17-yarder.
RYAN'S MILESTONE: Ryan passed Steve Bartkowski to become the Falcons' career leading passer. Ryan, completing his sixth season, completed 28 of 40 passes for 280 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. He has 23,472 career yards passing, breaking Bartkowski's mark of 23,470 yards.
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