Falcons clinch playoff spot, beat Panthers on Bryant’s 5 FGs
Atlanta Falcons kicker Matt Bryant (3) walks off the field after an NFL football game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2017, in Atlanta. The Atlanta Falcons won 22-10. Bryant kicked five field goals in the game. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
By Charles Odum, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — 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.
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.
Atlanta (10-6) clinched the No. 6 seed in the NFC and will play at the Los Angeles Rams next week in the first round of the playoffs.
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 (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.
Matt Ryan completed 28 of 45 passes for 317 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown pass to Devonta Freeman on Atlanta’s opening drive, and no interceptions.
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.
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 Julio 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.
Newton led the Panthers on a 16-play touchdown drive that consumed more than half of the second quarter and tied the game at 7. Newton gained the needed yard on a fourth-down keeper, but the true back-breaking play for Atlanta’s defense was his 27-yard pass to Brenton Bersin on a third-and-23 play. The pass set up Newton’s 4-yard scoring pass to Funchess.
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
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. He survived an injury scare after he took a big hit from Carolina strong safety Mike Adams on the opening drive. He returned to the field on the same drive, which ended with Ryan’s touchdown pass to Freeman.
Running back Jonathan Stewart was out due to back tightness. The Panthers also were without two more starters: safety Kurt Coleman (ankle), and right guard Trai Turner (concussion).
Panthers: Carolina will play at New Orleans next week in the first round of the NFC playoffs.
Falcons: Atlanta will visit the Rams next week in the first round of the playoffs.