The Carolina Panthers' fans can't ever seem to get off Thunder Road, but they had another thrill ride Sunday that ended well, as they edged Atlanta, 21-20, on the road to clinch a first-round bye and a home playoff game in Charlotte.
The Panthers ended up as the NFC's No.2 seed after Seattle's win Sunday -- the Seahawks are No.1. The Panthers will be playing either Jan.11 or 12 in Bank of America Stadium for sure. They won't have to play next week at all. About 7,000 single-game tickets are expected to go on sale Wednesday for the home playoff game -- more to come on that. The date of the game (Jan.11 or 12, Saturday or Sunday) is not yet set. If Carolina wins that one and the Seahawks win, too, the Panthers would have to beat Seattle in Seattle on Jan.19 in the NFC title game to advance to the Feb.2 Super Bowl in New Jersey.
5 things that went right for the 12-4 Panthers in a game they certainly could have lost:
1) Melvin White. With Carolina down 10-0 and looking awful, the rookie White made what I thought was the biggest play of the game in the second quarter. His pick-six of a Matt Ryan pass made it 10-7 and turned it into a game.
2) The defensive line. The Panthers got an incredible, franchise-record nine sacks off of Ryan, including two huge ones on what turned out to be the Falcons' next-to-last drive. Four came from Greg "Kraken" Hardy, who was truly monstrous. And, fittingly, it was the defense that won it at the end.
3) Cam Newton's legs. Newton was on and off throwing the ball, including starting 1-for-5 for eight yards and throwing an early interception again. But his legs kept the Panthers in the game offensively, particularly on a 96-yard TD drive at the end of the first half that culminated in the 3-yard TD pass to Ted Ginn Jr. that you see in the above picture.
4) Greg Olsen. He was the Panthers' most reliable receiver on a day where the team badly missed Steve Smith. Olsen caught a strike from Newton for the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
5) Crowd noise. Panther fans came out in force in the Georgia Dome, and although outnumbered overall, they screamed loud and long at some very key times. In fact, Atlanta's center (who made a terrible bad snap that short-circuited the Falcons' final drive) said later he couldn't hear because of the Panther fans' crowd noise in the final seconds. At a road game, no less! The Panther fans contributed heavily to that noise, so they actually affected a road game at a critical moment. Kudos to those who made the 250-mile hike to do that.