ATLANTA (AP) Carolina leaned on its defense and Cam Newton to clinch its first division title in five years.
Newton threw two touchdown passes, Greg Hardy had a team-record four sacks and the Panthers clinched the NFC South title by beating the Atlanta Falcons 21-20 on Sunday.
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. Carolina could move up to the No. 1 seed with losses by Seattle and Arizona in late games.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez had four catches for 56 yards and was honored at halftime in his final regular-season game. He has announced plans for retirement.
Newton led the Panthers with 72 yards rushing.
The Falcons (4-12) completed their crushing fall from a 13-3 finish and division title in 2012.
Newton was ineffective early, completing only 1 of his first 7 passes with an interception as the Falcons took a 10-0 lead.
After trailing 10-0, the Panthers dominated the remainder of the half and had the better end of an exchange of turnovers.
Carolina took a 14-10 lead with a long drive at the end of the half. A 21-yard pass interference penalty against Alford and a 17-yard run by fullback Mike Tolbert helped set up Newton's 3-yard scoring pass to Ginn, who was left open when linebacker Stephen Nicholas was frozen by Newton's fake inside handoff to Tolbert.
The Falcons took a 17-14 lead early in the third quarter on Ryan's 39-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White.
The Panthers were without Steve Smith, the team's second-leading receiver, and running back Jonathan Stewart. Smith sprained his left knee during Carolina's 17-13 win over New Orleans last week and was on the field for pregame warmups.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Friday he expects Smith to be ready for the playoffs.