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Falcons top Panthers, clinch playoff berth

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It took all 17 weeks, but the Atlanta Falcons earned an opportunity to defend their NFC Championship in the playoffs. The path this time around will be much tougher.

The 10-6 Falcons are headed to Los Angeles to face the Rams in the wild card round after a 22-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. It was the type of complete team effort from Atlanta that has been missing much of the season.

While the offensive fireworks from a season ago remain absent, Matt Ryan controlled the pace of play throughout the second half with precise throws on third down that kept drives alive. Ryan threw for 317 yards on 45 attempts on a day where the Falcons couldn't get anything going on the ground.

The Falcons scored five times in six possessions after halftime, all field goals, in the type of game that they will have to repeat to win in the playoffs. The big plays are gone, but the Falcons offense has enough weapons to move the ball down the field. The defense flew around the field, often

Carolina had a chance to win the NFC South on Sunday, but they came up woefully short. They will have to travel to New Orleans next week with a lot of issues facing the team. Cam Newton missed his first nine throws during a game where he was woefully inaccurate. The team's running game was bankrupt outside of Newton's scrambles and the Panthers' defense has quietly struggled to get stops over the last five weeks. The Panthers still finished 11-5 on the strength of their ability to win close games, but their path to the Super Bowl would likely require three straight road games.

The Falcons and Panthers don't look Super Bowl-ready entering the playoffs, but they both found a way into the tournament despite playing in the toughest division in football.

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