Print and Go Back ESPN.com: NFC South [Print without images]

Sunday, December 29, 2013
Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

By David Newton

ATLANTA -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 21-20 victory over the Atlanta Falcons:

What it means: The Panthers (12-4) win the NFC South title and a first-round bye for the playoffs. They are also the hottest team entering the playoffs with 11 wins in their past 12 games. The time off will give wide receiver Steve Smith, who missed this game with a sprained knee, to return at full strength. It will give a team that had its bye week after its third game a much-needed rest.

Stock watch: Cam Newton was horrible for much of the first half. Then he settled into a groove, and his legs were a big reason. He ran three times in the second quarter for 41 yards after gaining 4 yards on two runs in the first quarter. His completion rate took a sudden rise after a 1-for-4 first quarter. He finished 15-for-27 for 149 yards and two touchdowns. He ran for 72 yards on 12 carries to give him his first win against Atlanta in his hometown in three starts.

Stock watch II: In the summer, defensive end Greg Hardy predicted he would have 50 sacks. He'll fall well short, but he's starting to play at that pace. A week after collecting three sacks against New Orleans, he had four more against Atlanta two days after being selected to his first Pro Bowl. Hardy finishes with 15 sacks, a career best. He had 11 a year ago. His price tag in free agency is going up.

Sack party: The Panthers followed a six-sack performance against New Orleans with nine against Atlanta. For the most part they did it with the front four, which has been their staple all season.

Big play by rookie: Rookie cornerback Melvin White came up with the play that changed momentum in this one. With the Panthers trailing 10-0 in the second quarter, he intercepted a Matt Ryan pass and returned it 7 yards for a touchdown. It was the fourth defensive touchdown of the season for Carolina and first for the undrafted rookie.

What's next? The Panthers will have a first-round bye and host a playoff game in two weeks.