Falcons beat Panthers to earn playoff berth
ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons are heading back to the playoffs and the Carolina Panthers will have to settle for a wild-card spot as well thanks to five second-half field goals by Matt Bryant.
The 42-year-old Bryant, a 16-year veteran, included a 56-yarder among his kicks and the Falcons made life miserable for Carolina quarterback Cam Newton in a 22-10 victory Sunday.
The Falcons (10-6) claimed the second wild-card berth in the NFC with the victory, while the Panthers (11-5) had to settle for the first wild-card spot rather than the NFC South title because of the loss.
Carolina finished in a tie with New Orleans, which lost 31-24 at Tampa Bay, but the Saints beat the Panthers twice during the season to earn the division title and home field in the first round.
“Probably like anyone else, I’m mad, disappointed, take your pick,” Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s one of those things you have to take advantage of. You have the opportunity in front of you and you have to win the football game. But you’ve got to give them credit. (The Falcons) played well and we didn’t.”
The Saints and Panthers will meet in New Orleans next Sunday at 4:40 p.m. ET in the opening round of the playoffs, while the Falcons — NFC champions last season — play at the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday at 8:15 p.m. ET.
“I’m really excited to be in,” said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who passed for 318 yards and a touchdown. “Now we’ve got more work to do.”
Bryant’s fifth field goal, from 33 yards with 2:27 remaining, came after Newton threw his second of three interceptions, this one the first of safety Keanu Neal’s career.
Bryant hit from 56 yards with 6:37 left after earlier kicks of 30, 42 and 30 yards.
“He’s such a competitor, and we really rely and count on him,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “No moment is too big for him. Part of being a really successful kicker is having mental toughness, and he’s got that in abundance.”
Newton misfired on his first nine passes and finished 14 of 34 for 180 yards and one touchdown while being sacked twice. His third interception, by cornerback Robert Alford, came in the end zone on the next-to-last play of the game.
“We missed some opportunities (in the passing game) with some balls ricocheting off hands and we missed some throws,” Rivera said. “A lot of things went wrong.”
Ryan, the NFL MVP a season ago, was 28 of 45 while not throwing an interception and being sacked just once.
Ryan, who threw for at least 4,000 yards for the seventh time, came into the game with 12 interceptions to 19 touchdowns after throwing just seven interceptions compared to 38 touchdowns last season.
The Falcons went ahead in the third quarter on field goals of 30 and 42 yards by Bryant, then led by nine points after his 30-yarder in the first minute of the fourth quarter.
Bryant’s first field goal came after video review overturned an apparent 12-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Mohamed Sanu, and the second followed an interception by safety Ricardo Allen. His third field goal capped a drive of 60 yards.
A 44-yard field goal by Graham Gano got the Panthers back within six points, but Bryant connected on his 56-yarder with 6:37 remaining to make it a two-score game.
Neal’s interception to set up Bryant’s final field goal came on a high pass that went off the hand of Panthers tight end Greg Olsen.
“Basically, it’s like we’re starting back 0-0 and everybody is fighting for the same thing now,” Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said of the playoffs. “Forget what’s behind and look forward at what’s ahead. We’re confident in our abilities and looking forward to trying to make a run.”
The Falcons scored on their first possession for just the fourth time this season as running back Devonta Freeman covered 19 yards with a short pass from Ryan to cap a 10-play, 75-yard drive after the opening kickoff.
“When you’re playing against a good defense like Carolina, any time you can get some points early and get momentum going is big,” Ryan said.
The Panthers drove 78 yards in 16 plays, holding the ball for more than eight minutes, to tie the game 7-7 on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Newton to Devin Funchess with 50 seconds left before halftime.
Newton was 7 of 7 for 66 yards on that drive after going 0 of 9 on the Panthers’ first four possessions.
NOTES: The Panthers were without three starters — RB Jonathan Stewart (back tightness), RG Trai Turner (concussion) and FS Kurt Coleman (ankle). Turner was ruled out of his third straight game Friday, while Coleman had been listed as questionable. Stewart was not on the injury report. ... Falcons C Alex Mack (calf) started, but LG Andy Levitre, who had missed the previous three games, reinjured his triceps on the game’s first series. ... Falcons WR Taylor Gabriel (hamstring) left the game in the first quarter and DE Adrian Clayborn limped off in the fourth quarter. ... TE Levine Toilolo (knee) was inactive for the Falcons. ... DT Vernon Butler (shoulder) left the game in the second quarter for the Panthers and TE Chris Manhertz (ankle) was lost in the third quarter.