Falcons punch playoff ticket with 22-10 win over Panthers 

7:34 p.m Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017 Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman (26) carries the ball down the field during the first quarter of the game against the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes Benz Stadium, Sunday, December 31, 2017. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

The Falcons can pack their bags for the playoffs.

Kicker Matt Bryant made five second-half field goals and the defense bottled up Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on the way to a 22-10 victory on Sunday before 71,141 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“I thought we competed really well today,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “Throughout the game, there were a number of guys playing their hearts out. I loved the effort. I’m really excited to be in (the playoffs).”

The Falcons, the defending NFC champions, improved to 10-6 and earned the sixth and final playoff berth. They will be on the road throughout the playoffs at open at the Rams on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.

The Panthers dropped to 11-5 and finished second in the NFC South.

“We gave ourselves a chance to keep going,” Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen said. 

Elsewhere in the NFC South, the Buccaneers beat the Saints to drop them to 11-5. The Saints won the division title because they beat the Panthers twice head-to-head.

The Falcons will advance to play at the No. 3 seeded Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card round. The Panthers will play the Saints.

“We’ll be completely, 100 percent ready to ball,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. 

The Eagles (13-3) and Vikings (13-3) have the first-round byes in the NFC. 

The Falcons are the lone team from the NFC to return to the playoffs.

“We did what we had to do to get the win today,” Julio Jones said. 

It’s been a long, bumpy regular season for the Falcons, who stormed to the Super Bowl last season where they were defeated by the Patriots in a historic collapse after leading 28-3 in the third quarter.

Now, they are at least back in the playoffs and have a chance to atone for the crushing defeat. 

The Falcons opened the season with three wins and then lost three in a row, including games to the Bills and Dolphins. 

After reaching the halfway point of the season at 4-4, the Falcons won three in a row over the Cowboys, Seahawks and Buccaneers. 

The Falcons were beaten by the Vikings, beat the Saints and Buccaneers before losing to the Saints on Dec. 24. 

The Falcons were expected to be Super Bowl contenders if the offense continued to stay at an elite level and the defense improved. However, the offense regressed and was ranked 15th in points scored before playing the Panthers in the regular-season finale. But the defense, which was young, improved immensely over the season.

The Falcons got off to a good start against the Panthers.

Ryan hit running back Devonta Freeman out of the backfield for a 19-yard touchdown on the Falcons’ first possession. 

The Falcons scored a touchdown on their opening drive for only the fourth time this season. They also scored touchdowns against the Packers, Lions and Seahawks and won all three of those games.

Jones was walloped by Panthers safety Mike Adams while running a route across the middle. He left the game, but returned.

“I’m good, though,” Jones said after the game. “Nothing is broke. Nothing is pulled. I’m ready to go.”

Left guard Andy Levitre tried to play with a triceps injury that kept him out of the past three games, but left  in the first quarter. Ben Garland took over at left guard. 

After the opening drive, the offense stalled and was forced to punt four times. 

The Falcons didn’t help themselves as they committed four penalties on special teams. Brian Poole and LaRoy Reynolds had holding penalties on punt returns that set the offense back. Safety Damontae Kazee interfered with returner Kaelin Clay’s opportunity to catch a punt. Instead of the drive starting at the 25-yard line, the Panthers started at the 40. Reynolds also had the fourth special teams penalty, which was essentially a 27-yard loss. Instead of starting at the Atlanta 47-yard line after a 23-yard return by Andre Roberts, the Falcons started at their 20. Reynolds was busted for blocking Carolina’s Shaq Thompson in the back.

Newton got off to a slow start, but started to heat up in the second quarter and led the Panthers on a 16-play, 78-yard touchdown drive to tie the game, 7-7, at the half.

Newton missed his first nine passes, but got hot. He hit seven passes in a row, including a third-and-23 to Brenton Bersin for 27 yards and a 4-yard touchdown pass to Devin Funchess.

The Falcons tried to get in field goal range with 50 seconds left, but they’d used all of their timeouts during the Panthers’ touchdown drive. 

The Falcons thought they had spiked the ball with a second remaining from Panthers’ 36, but the clock ran out. The Falcons protested and would not immediately leave the field. A false start penalty on tight end Austin Hooper was costly in the last-ditch drive.

After Reynolds penalty, Ryan drove the Falcons down for an apparent 12-yard touchown on a pass to Mohamed Sanu. After review, the play was overturned. After an incompletion on third-and-10, the Falcons had to settle for a 30-yard field goal from Bryant to make it 10-7. It would be the first of five field goals.

Free safety Ricardo Allen intercepted Newton on the Panthers ensuing possession. The offense stalled and had to settle for a 42-yard field goal from Bryant to make it 13-7 with 3:44 left in the third quarter.  

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