ATLANTA - The Carolina Panthers' big-play defense appears capable of making a difference in the playoffs - even for a team with a losing record.
Roman Harper and Tre Boston returned interceptions for touchdowns, and Carolina recorded six sacks, leading the Panthers to a 34-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday to win the woeful NFC South.
Carolina (7-8-1) will host Arizona in a wild-card playoff game this weekend. The losing record didn't keep the Panthers from celebrating their first back-to-back playoff seasons in franchise history.
"It feels great," Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart said. "I mean, it's a blessing, and you just have to cherish these moments right now. ... We just believed and played our hearts out, and this is where we are."
The Panthers have won four straight, but still they are the first team to enter the playoffs with a losing record since 2010, when Seattle was 7-9.
"The beautiful thing - record doesn't matter," coach Ron Rivera said. "That's the best part."
Harper scored on a 31-yard return in the second quarter, and Boston clinched the win with his 84-yard interception return late in the third quarter. A 33-yard fumble return by Thomas Davis set up another touchdown.
"It was a great defensive effort," Rivera said.
The Panthers' celebration began with their final timeout with 2 minutes, 41 seconds remaining. Quarterback Cam Newton lifted his arms toward Carolina fans who moved close to the field to claim seats vacated by Falcons fans.
After the game, Newton answered fans who called his name by running back to the edge of the stands to give them high fives.
Newton completed 10 of 16 passes for 114 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ed Dickson in the first quarter. Newton also had a 4-yard scoring run. Stewart ran for 49 yards on 13 carries.
The Panthers did not have a turnover.
The Falcons (6-10) were booed as they finished their second straight losing season under embattled coach Mike Smith. Atlanta is 10-22 since falling to San Francisco in the 2012 NFC championship game.
Panthers 34, Falcons 3
Carolina 10 14 10 0 – 34
Atlanta 0 3 0 0 – 3
Car–FG Gano 21, 7:50.
Car–Dickson 5 pass from Newton (Gano kick), :04.
Atl–FG Bryant 21, 10:36.
Car–Harper 31 interception return (Gano kick), 4:18.
Car–Newton 4 run (Gano kick), 1:47.
Car–FG Gano 48, 8:43.
Car–Boston 84 interception return (Gano kick), :07.
First downs 17 16
Total Net Yards 306 288
Rushes-yards 35-194 16-63
Passing 112 225
Punt Returns 2-6 0-0
Kickoff Returns 1-20 3-107
Interceptions Ret. 2-115 0-0
Comp-Att-Int 10-16-0 29-47-2
Sacked-Yards Lost 1-2 6-35
Punts 3-48.3 5-49.2
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 5-36 6-36
Time of Possession 31:13 28:47
Rushing: Carolina, Newton 6-51, Stewart 13-49, Whittaker 7-41, Brown 2-41, Tolbert 7-12. Atlanta, Rodgers 9-44, Freeman 6-13, Ryan 1-6.
Passing: Carolina, Newton 10-16-0-114. Atlanta, Ryan 29-47-2-260.
Receiving: Carolina, Cotchery 3-25, Olsen 2-27, Stewart 2-20, Brown 1-28, Benjamin 1-9, Dickson 1-5. Atlanta, White 8-104, Douglas 5-28, Jones 4-58, Hester 4-32, Rodgers 3-19, Toilolo 2-14, Freeman 2-3, Pascoe 1-2.