Gimme 5: How Falcons handled Panthers, and won NFC South

The Falcons’ Mohamed Sanu runs after a catch against Tre Boston (33) and Leonard Johnson of the Panthers in the second quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 24, 2016 in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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The Falcons’ Mohamed Sanu runs after a catch against Tre Boston (33) and Leonard Johnson of the Panthers in the second quarter during their game at Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 24, 2016 in Charlotte, N.C. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

With an opportunity to solidify their playoff position, the Falcons clearly took care of business, defeating the Carolina Panthers 33-16 before 73,549 fans on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium and winning the NFC South division title.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan led the way with some pinpoint passing, and running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman gobbled up chunks of yardage both rushing and receiving and combined for more than 200 total yards between them for the fourth time this season.

“When either of them are in, the expectation is for them to make plays and take care of things,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.

They certainly took care of the Panthers.

When the Panthers tried to crawl back in, Coleman broke loose on a 55-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter after converting on a third-and-21.

“The offensive line made great blocks and (fullback Patrick) DiMarco made a great block for me to explode through the hole,” Coleman said.

The Falcons improved to 10-5. Carolina, the three-time defending NFC South champion, dropped to 6-9.

The victory, combined with Tampa Bay’s loss to New Orleans later Saturday, means that the Falcons clinched the division title. The Falcons are in position to improve their playoff positioning even further if they can beat the Saints in the home finale on Jan. 1. A No. 2 seed and a bye is not out of the question pending the results of the final two games for the Detroit Lions.

“We set out at the beginning of the season to win our division,” Quinn said. “That part has been accomplished, but there is more out there for us. This is a brotherhood that continues to play for one another every week. We are fired up to be able to get back in front of our fans next week.”

Ryan completed 27 of 33 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns.

“We still have to take care of our business next week, but this is a tough place to win,” Ryan said. “I know having played here for a long time. They are always well prepared and play really, really hard.”

Coleman, who had 90 yards rushing on nine carries and caught three passes for 45 yards, and Freeman, who had 53 yards rushing on 13 carries and caught eight passes for 35 yards, combined for 223 total yards.

Here are the five things we learned.

1. Ryan was on fire. On the opening drive, Ryan completed 5 of 5 passes for 59 yards while driving the Falcons for a touchdown to set the tone.

He tossed a 26-yard touchdown pass to tight end Joshua Perkins to complete the eight-play, 75-yard drive that took 4:03 off the clock.

Freeman and Coleman accounted for 34 of the 75 yards on the drive.

Ryan remained hot as he directed the Falcons to scores on their first three possessions and built a 20-3 halftime lead.

His touchdown pass to Perkins was his 33rd of the season, a franchise single-season record. Ryan had 32 touchdown passes in 2012.

By contrast, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was just awful early. He started off the game completing just 2 of 11 passes for 28 yards. In addition to being intercepted by cornerback Brian Poole on the Panthers’ opening possession, he was wild and high on several throws. He also tossed second interception late in the second quarter.

2. Tight ends step forward. The Falcons have been hit hard at the tight end position by rash of injuries. Jacob Tamme was lost for the season with shoulder injury and Austin Hooper missed this game with a knee injury.

Perkins, who made the team as an undrafted free agent from Washington, caught his first career touchdown pass on the opening drive. He ran a nice route and caught the ball between cornerback James Bradberry and linebacker Thomas Davis for the score.

D.J. Tialevea, who has been on the practice squad, was activated to the 53-man roster on Thursday. He caught a 1-yard touchdown in the second quarter.

Tight end Levine Toilolo also had a catch for 10 yards.

3. Bryant money in the bank. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday, made field-goal attempts from 51 and 48 yards, but had a 33-yard attempt blocked right before the half by Carolina's Vernon Butler. Bryant added a 29-yard field in the third quarter and a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter for the final score.

4. Return of Julio. Falcons All-Pro wide receiver Julio Jones made his return after missing the past two games with a sprained toe.

He caught a pass on the first play of the game but only had two catches for 21 yards at halftime as Ryan moved the ball around to a season-high 10 different receivers by the half.

On the Falcons’ first possession of the third quarter, Jones caught passes for 22 yards and 17 yards to help push a 10-play, 64-yard drive that ended with a 29-yard field goal by Bryant to make it 23-6 with 3:39 left in the third quarter.

Jones finished with four catches for 60 yards.

“It was awesome to have him back out there,” Quinn said.

5. Secondary played well. Falcons cornerback Brian Poole and Jalen Collins both had interceptions in the first half.

Poole’s came on Carolina’s first possession and the Falcons turned the pick into a 51-yard field goal.

With 1:40 left in the second period, Collins came up with his first career interception and returned it 37 yards to Carolina’s 21. The Falcons stalled and Bryant attempted a 33-yard field, but it was blocked with 13 seconds left.

Collins was beaten by Carolina wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for a 26-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the third quarter to pull the Panthers within 23-13.

Falcons safety Keanu Neal, the team’s leading tackler, left the game with an ankle injury. He returned but appeared to be gimpy after a few tackles.

“Our front has been killing it,” Collins said. “Vic (Beasley), AC (Adrian Clayborn) and all the rest of the guys upfront have been killing it and making it easier for us in the back.”

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