Falcons clinch playoff spot, beat Panthers on Bryant's 5 FGs
By CHARLES ODUM
ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Falcons have no complaints about a short practice week and a long road trip as their reward for being the NFC's last team to make the playoffs.
Matt Bryant kicked five field goals, including a 56-yarder, for all of Atlanta's second-half points and the Falcons clinched a playoff spot by beating the Carolina Panthers 22-10 on Sunday.
Atlanta (10-6) is the No. 6 seed in the NFC and will play at the Los Angeles Rams in a wild-card game Saturday night.
"We're in it. That's the only thing you can ask for," Bryant said.
After the teams played to a 7-7 halftime tie, the 42-year-old Bryant kicked field goals of 30, 42, 30, 56 and 33 yards without a miss.
"We needed every point we could get today," Bryant said.
On a day when Cam Newton and the Panthers' offense struggled, Bryant's 15 points provided a margin too great for Carolina to overcome.
The Panthers were held to 248 total yards.
"We didn't play well enough to win," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We can lie to ourselves, but we just didn't play well enough offensively to win."
The Panthers (11-5) had a playoff spot secured entering the weekend, but they couldn't improve their position.
Minnesota's 23-10 win over Chicago earlier Sunday ended the Panthers' hopes of a first-round bye. The loss to the Falcons ended Carolina's goal of winning the NFC South, and the Panthers will open the playoffs at New Orleans on Sunday.
Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said the Panthers have to move past the loss quickly.
"It's time to let this one go," Munnerlyn said. "We don't have time to let this loss linger on. It's playoff time. We've got to let it go, move forward and get ready for New Orleans."
The Panthers pulled even on Newton's 4-yard scoring pass to Devin Funchess late in the first half.
Newton threw three second-half interceptions. The third interception, by Robert Alford in the end zone with 8 seconds remaining, ended the Panthers' final drive. Newton completed 14 of 34 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown. He led Carolina with 59 yards rushing, including a 17-yarder.
Newton said facing the Falcons, who faced a must-win situation, created a playoff environment.
"This is playoff football," Newton said. "This was a hostile environment today and the way it's looking we're going to have a lot of hostile environments to go into."
The Panthers' only offensive highlight was a 16-play touchdown drive that consumed more than half of the second quarter and tied the game at 7. Newton completed a 27-yard pass to Brenton Bersin on a third-and-23 play to set up his scoring pass to Funchess.
The Falcons will be playing for a repeat trip to the Super Bowl.
"All you want is an opportunity," said defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who had a sack and three tackles for losses. "We have one. Now it's up to us to take advantage of it."
Newton was 0 for 9 before finally completing his final seven passes of the first half. Newton completed his first pass to McCaffrey - for a loss of 3 yards - midway through the second quarter.
MILESTONE FOR JULIO
Julio Jones caught a 14-yard pass midway through the third quarter to reach 9,000 career yards faster than any receiver since the 1970 merger.
The two-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowl selection last month set the league mark with the most catches and yards receiving in a receiver's first 90 games.
Jones finished with five catches for 80 yards, giving him 9,054 for his career.
TD ERASED ON REVIEW
With the game tied in the third quarter, the Falcons had an apparent touchdown taken off the board when a review showed Mohamed Sanu didn't maintain control of a 12-yard catch in the end zone. The ball hit the ground after Sanu collided with Jones, who also was crossing to the middle of the end zone.
The Falcons settled for Bryant's first 30-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.
Panthers: Carolina will play at New Orleans on Sunday in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
Falcons: Atlanta will visit the Rams on Saturday in the first round of the playoffs.
For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL
Updated December 31, 2017