ATLANTA — Carolina leaned on its defense and Cam Newton to clinch its first division title in five years.
Newton threw two touchdown passes, Greg Hardy had a team-record four sacks and the Panthers clinched the NFC South title by beating the Atlanta Falcons 21-20 on Sunday.
Making their first trip to the playoffs since 2008, the Panthers (12-4) secured a first-round bye and home-field advantage for at least one game as the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Carolina could move up to the No. 1 seed with losses by Seattle and Arizona in late games.
Carolina set a team record by sacking Matt Ryan nine times. The defense also produced a touchdown on Melvin White's 7-yard interception return in the second quarter.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez had four catches for 56 yards and was honored at halftime in his final regular-season game. He has announced plans for retirement.
Newton recovered from a sluggish start to complete 15 of 27 passes for 149 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Newton threw scoring passes to Ted Ginn Jr. and Greg Olsen.
Newton led the Panthers with 72 yards rushing.
Led by Hardy, Carolina's pass rush devastated Atlanta's patchwork offensive line which included second-year player Lamar Holmes and undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder as the starting tackles.
The Falcons (4-12) completed their crushing fall from a 13-3 finish and division title in 2012.
Ryan threw touchdown passes to Jason Snelling and Roddy White. Matt Bryant kicked field goals of 42 and 37 yards.
Newton was ineffective early, completing only 1 of his first 7 passes with an interception as the Falcons took a 10-0 lead.
On Carolina's first possession of the second quarter, Newton's high pass glanced off Domenik Hixon's hands. William Moore made a diving interception to set up Bryant's first field goal.
After trailing 10-0, the Panthers dominated the remainder of the half and had the better end of an exchange of turnovers.
DeAngelo Williams cut through the line for a 56-yard run but fumbled when hit by Robert Alford. Desmond Trufant recovered at the Atlanta 4.
The turnover only set up a giveaway by the Falcons. Melvin White stepped in front of Harry Douglas for an interception and touchdown return.
Carolina took a 14-10 lead with a long drive at the end of the half. A 21-yard pass interference penalty against Alford and a 17-yard run by fullback Mike Tolbert helped set up Newton's 3-yard scoring pass to Ginn, who was left open when linebacker Stephen Nicholas was frozen by Newton's fake inside handoff to Tolbert.
The Falcons took a 17-14 lead early in the third quarter on Ryan's 39-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White.
The Panthers were without Steve Smith, the team's second-leading receiver, and running back Jonathan Stewart. Smith sprained his left knee during Carolina's 17-13 win over New Orleans last week and was on the field for pregame warmups.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Friday he expects Smith to be ready for the playoffs.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon (knee) and running back Jacquizz Rodgers (concussion) were inactive for Atlanta.