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Panthers clinch NFC South, first-round bye with win

In the end, it came down to Carolina's defense to deliver the NFC South title and first-round bye. They delivered just like they have all year.

The Panthers' defense sacked Matt Ryan nine times and hit him countless more in Carolina's 21-20 win in Atlanta on Sunday. The Panthers will be hosting a game in the Divisional Round in two weeks.

Here's what else we learned in this one:

1. The Panthers' offense is regressing overall. With Steve Smith out of the lineup, they had almost nothing happening in the passing game other than screens. Cam Newton picked up a slew of first downs on the ground, while DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert continued to play well. Still, it's not a good sign that third-and-long is now a down where the Panthers are calling QB runs.

2. Newton has shown a knack for some great throws in the biggest spots over the last two weeks. The go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter came after Newton was patient in the pocket and fired a ball into a tight window. Other than that, Newton was off target all day. He sailed a lot of passes.

3. Ron Rivera didn't show much faith late in the game in Newton. He chose to run the ball three straight times and put his defense back on the field with under two minutes left rather than let Newton try to win the game with a throw. It looked like it was going to backfire until the Falcons snapped the ball before Ryan was ready on a potential go-ahead drive. The Falcons lost 16 yards on the play.

4. Give a ton of credit to all the Panthers fans in Atlanta for the game. It's quite possible their noise at the end of the game caused the game-deciding fumble.

5. Greg Hardy had four more sacks Sunday, and seven over the last two weeks. Carolina's defensive line won this game for them.

6. The Panthers were great all year, but they got lucky in this game. They got a pick six off a miscommunication. Rivera was too conservative late in the game. Roddy White dropped four passes that could have changed the result. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

7. The Panthers will be the No. 2 seed in the NFC unless Seattle loses to St. Louis on Sunday and San Francisco wins in Arizona.

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