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Falcons take division crown with win over Panthers

January 2nd, 2011
Getty Images from Yahoo! Sports

Weems scores on 55-yard punt return

The Falcons clinched their No. 1 seed and an NFC South division crown with a 31-10 beatdown of the Carolina Panthers to close out the 2010 regular season. The Falcons finish with a 13-3 record, their second best in franchise history. This is the second time the team has won the NFC South, their first crown coming in 2004.

Matt Ryan led the way, completing 22 of 32 passes for 236 yards and 2 touchdowns. Ryan finishes the year with career highs of 3,705 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. He was pulled at the start of the fourth quarter and replaced by Chris Redman who finished the game completing 4 of 6 passes for 20 yards. Michael Turner had a nice day on the ground with 67 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown, but also fumbled inside the redzone for the second week in a row. Jason Snelling was his primary sub late in the game with 8 carries for 17 yards. Roddy White caught 6 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown. With those numbers, he claims the single-season franchise record for receptions and receiving yards, finishing with 115 receptions and 1,389 yards. Tony Gonzalez added 6 receptions for 53 yards and a score. Michael Jenkins also contributed with 5 catches for 52 yards. It was not the sharpest day for the Falcons offense, only converting 4 of 11 on third downs, and missing both 4th down conversion attempts. But an early lead allowed them to coast for much of hte game before they were able to pull most of their starters at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Three of those failed third down conversions came with the backups on the field.

The Falcons offense kicked off the game strong with a 10-play 77 yard drive that ended with Ryan hitting Gonzalez for six. A three and out by the defense created good field position as the Falcons were able to drive from midfield into the redzone in five plays. But Turner fumbled the ball at the Panthers 13-yard line and was recovered by the Panthers at the 3-yard line. But another three & out led to Eric Weems returning a punt 55 yards for a score to take a 14-0 lead 8 minutes into the first quarter. The Falcons defense forced another three and out, leading to another drive starting at midfield. The Falcons drove all the way to the Panthers 4-yard line, but Ryan missed Roddy White in the endzone on a fourth down conversion.  The Panthers took over, but Mike Goodson fumbled six plays later which was recovered by Mike Peterson at their own 25-yard line. The Falcons would begin another long drive, but were stuffed on a QB sneak on a 4th & 1 at the Panthers 26 for another turnover on downs. Two possessions later the Falcons got the ball back after a fourth down stop at the Panthers 40-yard line. Ryan led them on a 7-play, 60-yard drive in the final two minutes of the half, hitting Roddy White on a 14-yard touchdown strike to take a 21-0 lead into halftime. The Panthers got their act together a bit with a field goal on their opening drive in the third quarter to prevent the shutout. That drive’s success was largely due to a 60-yard run on an end-around to Brandon LaFell. The Falcons answered back with a field goal of their own. Clausen was intercepted four plays later by Dunta Robinson, his first of the season. The Falcons answered with a 9-play drive for 54 yards, which was capped off by a 3-yard scoring run from Turner. After another stop by the defense, the fourth quarter began with the Falcons substituted most of the key starters for reserves. Neither team saw much offensive success at that point, with three missed third conversions for the Falcons, and two from Carolina before the Panthers got the ball back with 3:21 on the clock. The Panthers started to move the ball after the two minute warning and were able to get a garbage time touchdown on a 2-yard toss from Clausen to Jeff King to get their first touchdown of the game with just 24 seconds left on the clock. The Falcons would kneel down to end the game.

Defensively, the Falcons pretty much shut down the Panthers offense through three and half quarters, outside a few big plays on end-arounds. The Panthers failed to convert a single third down until less than 4 minutes left in the first half. They ended the game 3 of 13 on third downs and 160 of their 291 total yards were gained on their two scoring drives. Brent Grimes and William Moore shared the lead with 7 tackles each. John Abraham (2 tackles), Jonathan Babineaux (3 tackles, 1 sack), Thomas Decoud (4 tackles, 1 forced fumble), Peria Jerry (2 tackles, 1 sack), Stephen Nicholas (5 tackles), Corey Peters (3 tackles, 1 sack), Mike Peterson (1 tackle, 1 fumble recovery), and Dunta Robinson (3 tackles, 1 interception) had noteworthy games.

On special teams, Matt Bryant hit on his lone 47-yard field goal attempt. Michael Koenen punted 4 times for an average of 40.8 yards with 1 placed inside the 20-yard line. Eric Weems had a single kickoff return for 20 yards, but shined on punt returns with his big 55-yard return for a score. He returned his 2 other punts for a total of 20 yards.

The Falcons with their top seed in the conference will have a bye week, and then will host the lowest-seeded winner of the initial wild card round of the playoffs. That could possibly be a fifth-seeded New Orleans Saints team, who only a week ago beat the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. But it could also be a sixth seeded team that could potentially upset the third seeded Philadelphia Eagles team in the opening round. Depending on the results of today’s afternoon games, that potential sixth seed could be between the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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