ATLANTA -- For the first few minutes, there was some energy and precision football being played.
And then, well, Atlanta slipped into something of a drowsy mode while Carolina still kept working to look like something better than a 2-13 team.
The Panthers couldn’t get it done, and the Falcons then erased any doubt that they would earn the top seed in the NFC playoffs by rolling past the Panthers 31-10 on Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome.
A crowd of 67,349 was on hand to watch the Falcons take control early, muddle through much of the second and part of the third quarter and still cruise to the outright NFC South title and home-field advantage through the playoffs.
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“It did feel kind of good, though, to have the game in hand heading into the fourth quarter,” said Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, whose day ended after three quarters. “We’ve had some tight games, for sure.”
John Fox’s final game as Carolina’s head coach wasn’t one of them. The Panthers announced earlier in the week that Fox’s contract would not be renewed.
“Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination, although our destination isn’t where we had hoped to be,” Fox said
Atlanta’s journey -- with a destination of Dallas and the Super Bowl -- continues after blowing out the Panthers despite not being sharp very often, missing on two fourth-down conversion tries and outgaining the Panthers only 352-291.
But the Falcons had the ball for nearly 10 more minutes, extinguishing Carolina’s upset hopes with a late first-half touchdown and keeping it rolling in the second half, allowing the lone Panthers’ touchdown with 23 seconds left in the game.
“It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary,” Atlanta safety William Moore said. “We just planned on going out there and playing them like anybody else.”
Atlanta’s defense made life tough -- as it has been on Sundays -- for Carolina quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The rookie was under pressure all afternoon and completed 19-of-33 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown and an interception. He was sacked three times and hurried at least four times.
Carolina’s rush offense, 14th-best in the NFL, passed its average of 113.9 with 137 yards, but 60 of those yards came on an end around in the third quarter.
“Sometimes statistics can be deceiving,” Atlanta head coach Mike Smith said of his defense. “They are playing very confidently right now.”
The Falcons had 14 points and two defensive three-and-outs within the first 10 minutes.
They opened with a typical Atlanta drive, going 77 yards on 10 plays mostly through the air. Ryan hit Tony Gonzalez from 6 yards out.
Fans seemed to see the blocking form as Eric Weems awaited Carolina’s second punt. Weems caught the kick and saw the same thing, bursting up the middle and to the right for a 55-yard touchdown.
“I was just being patient,” Weems said. “I got great blocks up front. I just cut. I think I got clean, and once I got clean, I don’t think I got touched, except at the end by the kicker when he tried to push me out of bounds.
“When I made the first cut, I saw daylight.”
And that was that for a while.
There were two fourth-down hiccups to open the second quarter. Ryan put too much on a pass to Roddy White on the goal line, and then Ryan was stuffed for no gain with only a few inches needed.
“We had some opportunities to maybe put some more points on the board,” Smith said. “And we let them off the hook, so to speak.”
Carolina moved the ball, but the Panthers fumbled at the Atlanta 31 after the first fourth-down miss.
The teams muddled back and forth until Atlanta revived the crowd late in the first half, taking over on Carolina’s 40 after Jonathan Babineaux’s sack of Clausen for a 14-yard loss on fourth down.
White hauled in a pass on the right side, took a pop from Carolina’s Charles Godfrey at the goal line but crossed for the score -- a review upheld the close call -- with 51 seconds left to go up 21-0.
The Falcons had a 261-97 edge in yardage and 15-4 in first downs at halftime.
Carolina showed some spark with a 60-yard gain by Brandon LaFell on a reverse on the second play of the third quarter to reach Atlanta’s 13, but the Panthers promptly lost 17 yards on a wideout pass attempt from LaFell and had to settle for a 23-yard field goal.
Atlanta added 10 third-quarter points, and plenty of backups saw the field in the fourth quarter.
“This is what we’ve been working on,” running back Michael Turner said. “It’s just the first step of hopefully many from here on out.”