As Carolina Panthers players pulled on their “NFC South division champs” caps and celebrated in a loud and hot visitors locker room at the Georgia Dome, the whole scene Sunday seemed like déjà-vu.
The Panthers are going to the playoffs.
The Panthers used a suffocating defensive performance that included two defensive touchdowns and blew out Atlanta 34-3 at the Georgia Dome, becoming the first repeat champion in the NFC South since the NFL’s 2002 realignment.
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Carolina (7-8-1) won its fourth in a row to join the 2010 Seattle Seahawks (7-9) as the only teams to capture a division title with a losing record.
For a franchise that had never been to the playoffs in back-to-back years, the Panthers weren’t apologizing for their sub-.500 record.
“We made a lot of history tonight, a lot of history,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “Back-to-back division champs of the South. You know how hard that is? That was never done before. Carolina Panthers, the first to have done it. Hats off to Mr. Richardson and his staff.
“Then we had two defensive touchdowns? When the defense scores, we win the game. You’ve got to know that.”
The Panthers will host a wild-card round game at 4:35 p.m. Saturday against Arizona (11-5), which lost to San Francisco on Sunday and finished second to Seattle in the NFC West.
Carolina improved to 15-3 in December games under fourth-year coach Ron Rivera, and will enter the postseason as one of the league’s hottest teams.
A red-eyed Rivera credited his players’ resolve for salvaging a season that included a seven-game winless streak in October and November, the loss of defensive end Greg Hardy and a December car accident that sent quarterback Cam Newton to the hospital for a night and kept him out of a Week 15 win against Tampa Bay.
“In spite of all the things that we dealt with this year, the adversity we faced, the resilience of this football team and the men in that locker room were on display today,” Rivera said, his voice catching. “We put ourselves in this position by playing the way we did in December.”
The Panthers dominated the do-or-die game with Atlanta (6-10), which watched the Panthers celebrate a division crown on its home field for the second consecutive year.
Newton threw for a touchdown and ran for another, and he took delight in dancing and celebrating while eliminating his hometown team.
The Panthers’ defense turned in the biggest plays, sacking Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan six times and getting interception returns for touchdowns from both starting safeties.
Roman Harper’s 31-yard run-back and rookie Tre Boston’s 84-yard return marked the first time in the Panthers’ 20-year history they’d scored two defensive touchdowns in the same game.
Boston told Harper on the bus to the Georgia Dome that both were going to have pick-sixes against Ryan.
“That’s a bold statement when you make a call like that,” Boston said.
Boston, the fourth-round pick from North Carolina, was one of two rookies inserted into the starting secondary after a Nov. 30 loss at Minnesota left the Panthers with a 3-8-1 record and prompted Rivera and the front office to give several younger players a chance.
Boston said he was grateful the team gave him a shot – “even though I was young, just knowing I could make plays.”
Boston’s biggest play came when he pulled down his first career interception, eluded Falcons wideout Julio Jones and sprinted down the sideline for the end zone to give the Panthers a 31-point lead late in the third quarter.
“Once I got past Julio, I was like, ‘I’m cribbing this,’ ” Boston said.
Boston’s pick late in the third quarter came six plays after Panthers veteran linebacker Thomas Davis had an interception return for a score negated by his illegal contact penalty.
The Panthers hadn’t had a defensive score since Melvin White’s pick-six in Week 17 last year in Atlanta.
With the Falcons unable to get any semblance of a running game going with Steven Jackson sidelined by a quadriceps injury, the Panthers started bringing more pressure on Ryan in the second quarter.
The early lead also emboldened defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to get more aggressive with his schemes, Rivera said. The result was another stout pass rush by the Panthers, who had a franchise-record nine sacks in their division-clinching win at Atlanta in 2013.
“We’ve had success down here the last couple times. Guys came out focused, and you could just tell by the way the secondary played. The secondary played amazing, and it showed on the field,” defensive end Charles Johnson said. “Guys played out their mind.”
Leading 10-3, the Panthers took control with two takeaways in consecutive series in the second quarter.
On a second-and-20 from the Falcons’ 9, Ryan badly overthrew Roddy White and was intercepted by Harper, who went to a knee to make the pick. Following the block of linebacker Luke Kuechly, Harper raced in for a touchdown that put the Panthers up 17-3.
Four plays later, rookie linebacker Adarius Glanton stripped Roddy White, whose fumble was recovered by Davis and returned 33 yards. A penalty on the Falcons during the run-back gave the Panthers possession at the Atlanta 4.
Newton took it from there, ramming in for a 4-yard touchdown run then going through a demonstrative celebration that drew a strong reaction from the Atlanta fans.
But the Georgia Dome crowd saved its loudest vitriol for the Falcons, who were booed lustily as they left the field at halftime trailing by three touchdowns.
By the end of the game, Panthers’ fans had taken over the building for the second year in a row.
Rivera, who received a Gatorade shower in the final minute, said he never lost faith that his team could repeat as division champs, even during the two-month stretch without a victory.
“I believed it,” Rivera said. “I just felt that if we kept playing and kept taking care of our business, we would get that opportunity.”