Road to the Super Bowl in the NFC Goes Through Atlanta; Falcons Wrap Up #1 Seed in Win Over Carolina

Taking care of business with quite a bit on the line, the Falcons wrapped up the #1 seed in the NFC with a convincing 31-10 rout of the Carolina Panthers at the Georgia Dome.

Matt Ryan threw a pair of touchdown passes, going 22-of-32 passes for 236 yards for the Falcons (13-3), who bounced back from a loss to the Saints last week to claim their first NFC South title since 2004. Ryan improved to 20-2 at home as a starter.

Michael Turner rushed for 67 yards and a score on 17 carries for Atlanta, which recorded its best record since the 1998 season (14-2). The franchise made its only Super Bowl appearance to date that season, a loss to the Denver Broncos.

Roddy White hauled in six passes for 62 yards and a touchdown and Tony Gonzalez caught six passes for 53 yards and a score for the Falcons, who went 7-1 at home this season.

“It was a fun day for the Falcons and the Atlanta Falcon fans,” Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said. “I want to say first and foremost that I am really excited for our football team, for Mr. Blank, for general manager Thomas Dimitroff, for president Rich McKay and for all the fans here in Atlanta. To go through the 17 weeks and be the Division champs here in the south and to have a home game in the playoffs is going to be very beneficial for us.”

Jimmy Clausen connected on 19-of-33 passes for 182 yards, a touchdown and an interception for the Panthers (2-14), who played their last game under head coach John Fox. Carolina announced on Friday that the contracts of Fox and his staff will not be renewed.

Over his nine-year tenure with the Panthers, Fox led the Panthers to two NFC Championship games and one Super Bowl. He compiled a 73-71 regular season record during his stay in Carolina.

The Panthers have secured the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft.

“It’s been a heck of a run,” Fox said. “I could use another word but chances are this might be on camera. It’s been a great run, great memories, I know I didn’t finish like anybody wanted but if you had told me in 2002 it would have been a nine-year run I would have taken it and run. I’ve always taken it one day at a time in this business. You’re never promised tomorrow.”

The Falcons took control from the start, as their first possession lasted 10 plays and covered 77 yards. On the second play, Ryan threw a 17-yard pass to Michael Jenkins. A 16-yard run by Turner and a 15-yard catch by Jason Snelling put the ball in the red zone. A few plays later, Ryan rolled to his left and hit Gonzalez in the end zone for a six-yard score.

Atlanta was marching down the field on its next possession, but Turner fumbled the football. C.J. Wilson fell on the football at the three-yard line for Carolina.

The Panthers were forced to punt after doing nothing on offense. Eric Weems made the visitors pay with a 55-yard punt return for a touchdown.

A lack-luster Carolina offense gave the Falcons plenty of chances to add to their lead. Early in the second quarter, Atlanta decided to go for it on 4th- and-3 from the four-yard line. Ryan’s pass to White was incomplete.

The Panthers failed to capitalize, however, as Mike Goodson fumbled at the Atlanta 25-yard line. The Falcons faced a 4th-and-1 from the Carolina 26 this time around, but Ryan’s sneak came up short.

Carolina went for it on 4th-and-2 from the Atlanta 45, but Clausen was sacked for a loss of 15 yards. Faced with a 3rd-and-10, White caught a 14-yard pass along the left sideline. Gonzalez made a nice 12-yard catch along the right sideline on the next play. White caught a 14-yard pass near the right pylon to make it 21-0 at the half.

The Panthers got the ball to start the second half and used a 60-yard end- around run by Brandon LaFell to get into Atlanta territory. John Kasay put Carolina on the board with a 23-yard field goal.

The visitors tried to trick the Falcons with an onside kick, but Erik Coleman recovered for Atlanta at the 45. Matt Bryant kicked a 47-yard field goal to make it a 24-3 game with 9:46 left.

Dunta Robinson then picked off Clausen near midfield. The Falcons used the ground game to run time off the clock. Back-to-back defensive penalties put the ball at the one, and Turner rumbled into the end zone for a 31-3 margin with two minutes remaining.

With the game well in hand, Chris Redman took over at quarterback for Atlanta in the fourth quarter.

Jeff King caught a two-yard TD pass with 23 seconds remaining to account for the final margin.

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