Panthers' turnaround culminates in playoff berth


The NFC playoffs are starting to take shape. And they will include a team that was once 3-8-1 on the season.

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The Carolina Panthers are NFC South champions after a convincing 34-3 victory in the Georgia Dome on Sunday. The Panthers finish the season on a four-game winning streak, while leaving no doubt that they are the best team in a historically bad division. Ron Rivera's crew is the first NFC South team ever to repeat as champions.

Here's what you need to know from the game:

1. Carolina is a playoff team because they found an identity late in the season. Their running game took off when Jonathan Stewart took over as their primary running back because of DeAngelo Williams' injury. And their pass rush took fire late in the year, with veteran Charles Johnson leading the way.

2. Stewart only had 49 yards rushing Sunday, but the team as a whole ran for 195 yards in part because Cam Newton led the way. The Panthers have re-embraced Newton as a running option, and the Falcons' pass rush could not get him to the ground even when they pressured him on Sunday.

3. This performance could spell the conclusion of the Mike Smith era in Atlanta. In the end, his defense was sub-mediocre like it was for most of the year. Matt Ryan made a number of poor throws under pressure, including two passes returned for a touchdown. The Falcons couldn't run the ball all year. Ultimately, Mike Smith preached toughness, intelligent football and a strong running game as hallmarks of his team. This Falcons squad had none of that.

4. This was Ron Rivera's dream game. His squad won by 31 and his leading receiver had only 28 yards. The Panthers will host the Cardinals next week in a very winnable game for Carolina.

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