ATLANTA -- NFC South division champs.
Carolina Panthers' fans can that off their tongues a few times. They'll have two weeks to savor it.
The Panthers beat up Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and beat the Falcons 21-20 on Sunday at the Georgia Dome, claiming their fourth division title.
Carolina (12-4) joined the 1996, 2003 and 2008 teams as the franchise's only division winners and clinched a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game.
"Our fans, Mr. (Jerry) Richardson, our coaches, Charlotte, North Carolina, South Carolina, anyone who wears the Panthers colors proudly, we're past due for this opportunity," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "We have it, we know we have to seize the moment. ...
"I'm excited, I'm ecstatic about it, and we're not done here yet."
The Panthers are assured of no worse than the No. 2 seed in the NFC and could be first if Seattle loses to St. Louis and San Francisco beats Arizona later Sunday.
The Panthers were 1-3 after four games before winning 11 of the past 12.
"I'm not worried about where we come from, I'm worried about where we're headed," defensive end Charles Johnson said "We're trying to do something better than what we've been doing.
"I'm not worried about the past. I'm worried about now."
The Panthers set a franchise record with nine sacks on Ryan, including four by defensive end Greg Hardy.
Hardy broke Johnson's single-game record of 3.5 sacks, set here last season, and tied Kevin Greene (15 in 1996) for the most prolific sack season in team history.
The Panthers finished with 60 sacks on the year, which tied the '96 team for most in a season.
The Panthers didn't get to Ryan on the Falcons' last drive. They didn't need to. Struggling to hear in their own stadium, the Falcons' last gasp ended when the center sent a shotgun snap 16 yards behind Ryan, who wasn't ready for it.
Several players said the noise being made by Panthers fans made it seem like a home game.
"That was a first for me, especially in this place," center Ryan Kalil said. "It was unbelievable. It felt like a home game.
"I'd seen that in years past, but in our stadium."
Newton, playing on an ankle he twisted last week against New Orleans, was the game's leading rusher with 12 carries for 72 yards. Newton also threw for a pair of scores.
But the Panthers' defense, particularly their pass rush, was the story.
The teams exchanged the lead twice in the second half.
Roddy White's 39-yard touchdown catch put the Falcons up 21-17 with 9:50 left in the third quarter. White, who helped the Falcons beat Carolina in Atlanta last year with a long catch in the final minute, blew by strong safety Quintin Mikell for the score.
But the Panthers responded on the ensuing possession with a 10-play, 76-yard scoring drive. On third-and-goal, Newton stood in the pocket for several seconds before firing a dart to tight end Greg Olsen for a 7-yard touchdown and a 21-17 lead.
Matt Bryant's 37-yard field goal pulled the Falcons to 21-20 midway through the fourth quarter. But Atlanta would get no closer.
The Panthers led 14-10 at halftime after falling behind by 10.
Ryan led the Falcons on an 11-play, 80-yard drive on their first possession before finding Jason Snelling on a 9-yard touchdown with 8:43 left in the first quarter.
It was the first opening-drive touchdown allowed by the Panthers this season.
The Falcons turned a Newton interception into a 42-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to go up 10-0 with 10 minutes left in the first half.
But momentum shifted in a three-play, 46-second stretch in the second quarter.
DeAngelo Williams was headed to the end zone after catching a screen pass and finding a seam along the sideline. But cornerback Robert Alford caught Williams at the Falcons' 11 and knocked the ball free.
Rookie corner Desmond Trufant recovered the ball at the 4.
After Williams' fumble, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said afterward, his team needed someone to "make a play."
Enter Panthers rookie cornerback Melvin White, who two plays later said he correctly anticipated a quick out pass from Ryan, based on film study.
White intercepted a Ryan pass intended for Harry Douglas and scored on a 7-yard return to pull the Panthers to 10-7 midway through the second quarter.
The Panthers took the lead just before the half on a 3-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Ted Ginn Jr., capping a 13-play, 96-yard drive.
Newton, who twisted his ankle last week against New Orleans, had three scrambles for 30 yards on the drive. The Panthers also were helped by a pass interference penalty against Alford on a third-and-four play near midfield.
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