Future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez took to the field for the final time, but heated emotions and a strong start weren't enough to hold off the Panthers, who won, 21-20.
The Falcons jumped out to a quick lead, with Carolina allowing its first opening drive touchdown of 2013. Atlanta's offense was full of fire, leaning heavily on Gonzalez, who split the offense early for a big 32-yard gain. Ultimately it was Jason Snelling who scored the game's opening score on a 9-yard pass.
It appeared the stage was set for a shocker when Cam Newton was unable to move the ball downfield without veteran wide receiver Steve Smith. Atlanta held a 10-point lead, but back-to-back touchdowns, including a pick six, put the Panthers on top at halftime.
The Panthers' defense was the story on Sunday, mitigating a struggling offense that managed just 283 total yards against one of the league's worst defenses. Newton was scatter shot in the first half, but leaned on his ground game to settle his passing, finishing with two touchdowns and an interception, while adding 72 yards on the ground.
Gonzalez had another solid game, finishing with four receptions for 56 yards -- but the inability of the Falcons offensive line shined through. Matt Ryan was sacked a season-high nine times, and there was nothing the offense could do about it. One of the league's greats now hangs up his cleats, and Atlanta has plenty of soul searching to do as it tries to build back its team for a 2014 run.
Carolina finishes the regular season with a well-deserved break. A win in Atlanta ensured the Panthers will have a first round bye in the playoffs and win the NFC South.
Fantasy studs and duds
Falcons receiver Roddy White finished with 91 yards receiving and a touchdown.
Newton struggled for much of the game, but bounced back to finish with 221 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns.
Blocking tight end Ben Hartsock left the game in the second quarter, and did not return for the Panthers.
Falcons defensive end Stansly Maponga left in the second quarter with an apparent chest injury.
Did they cover?
Carolina has the week off, and will prepare to host its first playoff game in five years.
The Atlanta Falcons are finished, and will begin their offseason preparations.