CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Matt Ryan threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns, Tevin Coleman had 135 yards from scrimmage, including a pivotal 55-yard fourth-quarter TD run, and the Atlanta Falcons moved a step closer to wrapping up a postseason berth with a 33-16 win over the Carolina Panthers on Saturday.
The Falcons (10-5) can clinch their first NFC South title since 2012 if Tampa Bay loses or ties New Orleans on Saturday. Atlanta can also clinch a playoff berth with a Detroit loss or tie against Dallas on Monday night.
A few straggling Falcons fans chanted “MVP!” at Ryan in the game’s closing minutes while most Panthers fans had already headed for the exits.
The Panthers (6-9) were officially eliminated from playoff contention after making the Super Bowl last season.
Ryan torched the Panthers for the second time this season. He threw for 503 yards and four TDs in Atlanta’s win over Carolina earlier this season at the Georgia Dome, a victory that set the stage for the Falcons’ playoff push.
After piling up 300 yards receiving in the last meeting with Carolina, Julio Jones had a relatively quiet day in his return from a toe injury – four catches for 60 yards. But Ryan spread the ball around effectively, throwing touchdown passes to backup tight ends Joshua Perkins and D.J. Tialavea, who was signed from the practice squad earlier in the week.
The Panthers had battled back to cut Atlanta’s lead to 23-13 and had Ryan backed up to his own 14 on third-and-21 early in the fourth quarter. But Ryan completed a 31-yard swing pass in the left flat to Coleman, who raced past Thomas Davis for a 31-yard gain. On the next play, Coleman broke through a big hole up front and raced 55 yards for a touchdown to push Atlanta’s lead safely back to 17.
Cam Newton, last year’s league MVP, struggled with accuracy throughout the day, completing 18 of 43 passes for 198 yards with two interceptions. His only highlight came on a 26-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin in the back of the end zone on the final play of the third quarter.
Carolina will finish with its fourth losing season in six years under coach Ron Rivera. Rivera was named NFL coach of the year in the two seasons in which the Panthers had winning records.
OLSEN SETS RECORD
Carolina’s Greg Olsen has become the first tight end in NFL history to record three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Olsen did it with a 17-yard reception from Newton in the second quarter.
RYAN BREAKS MARK
Ryan broke his own franchise record with his 33rd TD pass of the season when he fired a dart to Perkins in between double coverage for a 26-yard first-quarter score.
SPREADING IT AROUND
Ryan set an NFL single-season record by throwing TD passes to 13 different receivers. Taylor Gabriel has six TD receptions, while Julio Jones (5), Muhammad Sanu (3), Jacob Tamme (3), Austin Hooper (3), Justin Hardy (3), Devonta Freeman (2), Tevin Coleman (2), Aldrick Robinson (2), Levin Toilolo (2), Patrick DiMarco (1), Perkins (1) and Tialavea (1) also caught TD passes.
Down 17 and facing a crucial third-down situation with 10 minutes left, the Panthers left their top two receivers Benjamin and Olsen on the sideline and inserted backup quarterback Joe Webb for the injured Devin Funchess (knee). Newton threw to Webb near the goal line and he couldn’t handle the pass, forcing the Panthers to settle for a third Graham Gano field goal.