The Panthers didn’t make it easy on themselves, or Matt Ryan.
The Panthers clinched the NFC South title at least a bye week in the NFC playoffs, beating the Falcons 21-20 to finish 12-4.
They did it by hanging on offensively, and pounding the Falcons with their pass rush. Ryan was sacked nine times, with Greg Hardy posting four of those in his last regular season game before free agency. That gives Hardy 15 on the season, equalling Kevin Greene’s franchise record.
The Panthers have to wait on late results to see which seed they’ll hold, but they know they’ll get an extra week off.
They need all the time they can get to get Steve Smith healthy, as their offense clearly missed a gear without the veteran wide receiver. Cam Newton was held to 149 passing yards, but ran for 72 yards to keep just enough offense sustained.
The Falcons had a last crack at it, but a promising drive was derailed when the ball was snapped before Ryan was ready for it, driving them far out of field goal position. It was a ridiculous end to a ridiculous season for the 4-12 Falcons.