Earning their first trip to the playoffs in five years was not enough for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, who still have plenty to play for in Week 17.
With the NFC South crown still up for grabs and an outside shot at the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the visiting Panthers will try to wrap up the division and a first-round bye with a victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Newton struggled all afternoon last Sunday in a crucial matchup against New Orleans, but he again made big plays down the stretch, throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to lift the Panthers (11-4) to a 17-13 win and their first playoff berth since 2008.
"Cam was very resilient," coach Ron Rivera said. "He struggled all day and he knows that. But he came through when we needed him."
Newton had just 116 yards passing in the game's first 59 minutes before taking over at the Carolina 35 trailing 13-10 with 55 seconds to go and no timeouts.
Playing on a sore ankle and with receiver Steve Smith on the sideline because of a left knee injury, Newton completed passes of 37 and 14 yards before Hixon made his diving catch on the left side of the end zone. It was the third time since mid-November that Newton marched the Panthers downfield on their final possession to win a game.
Carolina can clinch the South and a first-round bye with a win, and still has a chance to earn the top seed and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. That would require a victory over Atlanta, a win by San Francisco at Arizona and St. Louis beating Seattle.
"When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people that were jumping off the bandwagon," Newton said. "It was a lot of finger-pointing and saying, `I told you so.' But as a team we stuck together and didn't veer off and had faith in each other."
Securing a bye has become even more important for Carolina after Smith went down with a sprained posterior cruciate ligament only 8 minutes into last Sunday's game. The 34-year-old, who has 746 receiving yards this season, will not play against Atlanta but should be fine for the playoffs.
"It was very good news considering the alternative," Rivera said Monday after an MRI revealed the nature of the injury. "Where he sprained it and the lack of severity there was, that was all positive news. It really was. And I'm excited and very happy for Steve."
Rivera said Ted Ginn Jr. will take Smith's starting spot and see the majority of reps against the Falcons, but said Hixon and Brandon LaFell could also see plenty of action. The team is also likely to activate wide receiver Marvin McNutt as its No. 4 receiver.
"If we can win this week we get a break, and that's huge," middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. "It's going to be tough. The Falcons are a good team and they have good weapons. They're much better than their record shows."
Coming into 2013 with high expectations after falling 10 yards shy of reaching the Super Bowl, Atlanta (4-11) may be relishing its chance to play spoiler at the end of a very disappointing season.
If the Falcons win, the Saints can claim the NFC South crown by beating Tampa Bay.
Atlanta, which has been outscored by 74 points in the second half this season, blew a third-quarter lead in a 34-24 loss at San Francisco on Monday night in a rematch of last season's NFC championship game.
"We're just not making the plays when they're presented to us to win those types of games," coach Mike Smith said. "And that's something that we have to continue to work on and get right for this last game against Carolina."
The absence of Smith won't necessarily limit the Panthers' offense, but they may turn to more of a ground game against Atlanta, which is allowing the second-most rushing yards per game (135.9) in the NFL this season.
Newton will surely find plenty of space to make plays, and he's averaged 8.3 yards per carry over his five career games against the Falcons.
Atlanta is last in the league in rushing yards at 78.1 per game and the Panthers boast the No. 2 run defense (87.7 allowed), so the Falcons' offense figures to rely heavily on the right arm of Matt Ryan.
Ryan has eclipsed 4,000 passing yards for the third straight season but has a career-worst 16 interceptions after signing a five-year contract extension last summer. He threw three of those in Carolina's 34-10 home win in Week 9, a point total that matches Atlanta's season low.
The Falcons have averaged 33.0 points in winning all five games at home against the Panthers since Ryan came into the league.
This may be the final career game for tight end Tony Gonzalez, who returned this season hoping for a chance to win his first Super Bowl only to watch the Falcons crumble.
The future Hall of Famer has still been productive at age 37 with 803 receiving yards and a team-leading eight touchdowns. He holds virtually every major career record at his position, including catches (1,321), yards (15,071) and touchdowns (111).
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