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Newton, Panthers earn playoff bye

Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker, right, celebrates his 16-yard touchown run in the third quarter with Cam Newton.

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Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker, right, celebrates his 16-yard touchown run in the third quarter with Cam Newton.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton raced from one end of the Panthers' sideline to the other in the final moments of a 38-0 rout of the Falcons on Sunday, raising his arms to the crowd as fans cheered on their emotional MVP candidate.

"I believe right now it's our moment as Panthers," Newton said with a smile as he praised the team's fan base following his victory run. "We try to seize it as much as possible."

Newton — and the fans — had plenty of reason to celebrate.

The fifth-year quarterback completed 15 of 21 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns, and the unbeaten Panthers clinched a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs in what Newton described as the team's most complete game.

It's hard to argue that.

The Panthers outgained the Falcons 424-230, forced four turnovers and matched the franchise's largest margin of victory in becoming the ninth team in NFL history to start a season 13-0.

Jonathan Stewart ran for a 1-yard touchdown and Newton connected on scoring strikes of 74 and 46 yards to Ted Ginn as the Panthers scored on their first three possessions to take a 21-0 first quarter lead.

Newton also threw a 4-yard score to Ed Dickson in the final seconds of the first half before leaving for good at the end of the third quarter with Carolina up 38. He finished with a career-high quarterback rating of 153.3, and the Panthers won their 17th straight regular-season game dating to last season.

"Don't ease up on the gas," Newton said. "… We want to be considered finishers."

Carolina had two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and registered five sacks — two by defensive tackle Kawann Short — while limiting struggling Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to 224 yards passing. They played inspired defense after letting Drew Brees throw for three touchdowns last week in a narrow escape.

It was a brutal day for the Falcons, who started 5-0 but have lost six straight.

"It was about as badly as we can play," Ryan said.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn called the loss "unacceptable."

"We look for smart, tough and finish," Quinn said. "That's what I expect from our club. When that doesn't happen, yes, I have a lot of disappointment."

The teams meet again Dec. 27. The Panthers can clinch the No. 1 seed before then if they beat the Giants next week and Arizona loses.

It seems the biggest issue the Panthers might have between now and the playoffs will be balancing winning — two more victories would mean a 16-0 season would be at stake when they face the Bucs in the finale — and staying healthy.

There were some scary moments for Carolina on the injury front.

Stewart (left ankle), who ran for 75 yards, and tight end Greg Olsen (left knee) left in the second quarter and did not return. Coach Ron Rivera said both players could have returned if not for the commanding lead.

However, Rivera said starting cornerback Bene Benwikere broke his left leg and is done for the season.

Rivera has been non-committal on if he will rest players if they clinch a first-round bye or go for history and a shot at an undefeated season.

Newton left for a play in the second quarter after hitting his funny bone. He returned to throw his third TD of the game to Dickson, who made a diving catch on a slant for a 28-0 lead. It marked the 11th straight game the Panthers have scored at least 27 points.

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Newton, Panthers earn playoff bye 12/13/15 [Last modified: Sunday, December 13, 2015 8:50pm]
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