ATLANTA -- Carolina's blueprint for playoff success has been set: Let the sack-happy defense lead the way and hope dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton can add just enough offense.
"Now we can cross that goal off," said linebacker Luke Kuechly. "Now we can concentrate, get guys healthy and get ready to go."
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.
"Feels outstanding," said Carolina coach Ron Rivera. "Our guys fought all season and did the things we needed to do."
"We've got a lot of guys that we need back that play an intricate role in making this team go," Newton said.
Carolina could move up to the No. 1 seed with losses by Seattle and Arizona in late games.
"It's about the team," Hardy said when asked about his record. "I know we got the team record and that's all that matters."
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."
Atlanta players spoke during the week about wanting to send Gonzalez out with a win.
"They came out with a lot of emotion, they played very hard, they played for one of their leaders today, for Tony today," Rivera said.
"It was tough, there's no doubt about it," Ryan said. "It was a good defense that we were going against and a really good front seven and we made some mistakes. I made some mistakes, too, so some of that was on me. We have to be better than that."
After trailing 10-0, the Panthers dominated the remainder of the half and had the better end of an exchange of turnovers.
"It was just a miscommunication and it wasn't the right time to not be on the same page," Ryan said.
NOTES: Paid attendance was 70,427 but there were empty seats throughout the Georgia Dome and a large turnout by Carolina fans. ... Smith sprained his left knee during Carolina's 17-13 win over New Orleans last week and was on the field for pregame warmups. Rivera said Friday he expects Smith to be ready for the playoffs. ... LB Sean Weatherspoon (knee) and RB Jacquizz Rodgers (concussion) were inactive for Atlanta. ... Carolina's record for sacks in a game was 3 ½ by Johnson at Atlanta on Sept. 30, 2012.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press