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By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - The status of Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera seemed bleak after a 6-10 finish last season.
Rivera was given one last chance by owner Jerry Richardson and it didn't look good after a 1-3 start. The Panthers, though, rallied behind their coach with eight straight wins and 10 in the last 11 games, and look for a NFC South title and a first-round bye Sunday on the road against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers have an 11-4 record, the best since going 12-4 back in 2008 and reaching the playoffs, and pulled off a 17-13 win at home over the rival New Orleans Saints last Sunday. The win clinched a postseason spot for Carolina, which hasn't won a division crown since 2008.
Carolina can win the NFC South and capture a first-round bye with a win Sunday or a loss by New Orleans. The Saints host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton shook a rusty start to last week's win and his 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds remaining in the game sealed the victory. Newton threw for 181 yards on 13-of-21 passing with a touchdown strike and an interception to keep Carolina in contention for the No. 2 seed in the conference.
Carolina can also secure home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs with a win combined with a Seattle loss and a San Francisco win. The Seahawks host St. Louis, while the 49ers visit Arizona.
"It's exciting, but we still have a lot business left at hand," Rivera said.
Rivera also said Newton "tweaked" his ankle, but it shouldn't keep him from missing Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome. The setback limited Newton to six yards on four carries.
Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith sat out the entire second half after injuring his left knee while attempting a catch in the first quarter, and his status for Sunday's game is in doubt. Smith, who feared he may have torn the ACL, has a PCL sprain and will be treated week-to-week.
"He's very optimistic," Rivera said. "I said to him, 'Hey, it's good news.' And he said, 'Well, it doesn't feel very good right now coach, but you know me.'
"We do know Steve. He's tenacious, and he'll do everything he can, believe me. He's going to work very, very hard."
Smith had one catch for 44 yards and owns 745 receiving yards and four touchdowns this season. Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said it's time for other players to step it up if Smith can't go Sunday or in the playoffs, so that means leading receiver and tight end Greg Olsen (774 yards) and receivers Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. will see more balls.
Running back DeAngelo Williams ran for 67 yards on 12 carries, including a 43- yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Williams has rushed for 50 or more yards in three straight games.
Atlanta will put the finishing touches on what has been a disappointing season. One season after going 13-3 with an NFC South and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Falcons were decimated by injuries, a poor running game and a spotty defense.
One could probably guess it's a bad season when Harry Douglas is the leading receiver with 1,009 yards for a team with Roddy White, Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez. Quarterback Matt Ryan still passed for more than 4,000 yards for a third straight season, but he also threw a career-high 16 interceptions to go along with 24 TD passes.
Ryan has four INTs and five TD passes in his last three games.
Besides closing out a losing season for the 4-11 Falcons, they will witness the end of arguably the greatest tight end in NFL history. Gonzalez is set to retire at season's end and came back for one more campaign in hopes of reaching the Super Bowl. Ryan's career accelerated with the addition of Gonzalez a few seasons ago and he wants to see the big man dunk the ball over the goal post one last time.
"Seeing him throw the ball over the goal post another time would be a good finish to his career," Ryan said.
Ryan, of course, has to get Gonzalez the ball. The chiseled tight end is fifth in NFL history with 15,071 receiving yards and has a reception in 210 consecutive games.
"I think guys know that we want to send him out with a win," Ryan said. "We'd love to be able to do that. We're going to do everything we can during the week to prepare ourselves to be ready to do that. We'd love to see him play well and go away with a win."
The Falcons have lost seven of their last nine games and dropped a 34-10 decision at Carolina on Nov. 3. Gonzalez had 81 yards and a touchdown on six receptions, but Ryan was intercepted three times. Falcons first-year running back Steven Jackson posted 57 yards on 13 carries in that one and has amassed just 502 yards on the ground in 11 games.
Atlanta has won seven of the last 11 meetings with the Panthers under head coach Mike Smith and leads the all-time series 23-14. The Falcons have prevailed in each of the previous five matchups at home.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Newton had a subpar performance in the win versus Atlanta almost two months ago and completed 23-of-37 passes for 249 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He run for 22 yards and a score, but wants an even better showing in his hometown with a lot on the line.
"I don't think we're going into this game looking at winning for the bye week," Newton said. "We're going into this game winning because we have to. Of course, we know what's riding on this game."
With his rusty game last week and a lack of offense most of the afternoon, Newton knows as a leader of the team players have to step it up.
"Offensive performances haven't been very great ... especially this past week," Newton continued. "I'm starting with myself, saying I have to be better. I will be better. I'm expecting myself to be better, and things will have to change offensively."
LaFell and Olson ended with 74 and 66 yards, respectively, against Atlanta and Smith ended with 52 yards on four receptions.
The last time the Panthers visited the Georgia Dome they dropped a tough 30-28 decision on Matt Bryant's 40-yard field goal with five seconds to go. Ryan passed for 369 yards with three TD strikes and an interception, while Newton recorded 215 yards, two scores and no INTs.
"We had a heartbreaking loss last year in the Georgia Dome," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "But it seems like everything is going our way this year. This is a different team."
The Falcons' Smith has seen an improvement in Newton, especially in 2013.
"I think Mike Shula has done a great job with Cam in terms of their third down efficiency. They're very good. They're doing a good job of taking care of the ball," Smith said. "They're not turning it over, and you combine that with what they are doing on defense, not giving up points and taking the ball away, it is a good formula. I think he is doing a very good job in his progressions in the passing game and spreading the ball around."
Carolina's defense has improved vastly this season and must not underestimate Ryan and the Falcons in Week 17.
"This is an important game, and we know that," Rivera said.
Atlanta is hoping linebacker Sean Weatherspoon can return from a knee injury, but he is doubtful. Weatherspoon hasn't played since Dec. 15 versus Washington. Defensive tackle Corey Peters won't see the field Sunday after he was placed on injured reserve with a ruptured his right Achilles.
Carolina was able to keep the high-powered Saints grounded last week because New Orleans tends to struggle on the road. Atlanta is 3-4 at home and has a legitimate shot at putting a wrench in the Panthers' plans of improving their playoff status.
Expect a strong defensive effort from both teams Sunday, while Newton will do just enough to help Carolina clinch the NFC South with a close win.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 21, Falcons 20
12/27 14:12:43 ET