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Falcons clinch No. 1 seed in NFC

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By Charles Odum, AP Sports Writer

ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Falcons, No. 1 in the NFC, embraced home-field advantage in the playoffs.

The Carolina Panthers, No. 1 in the NFL draft, said goodbye to their coach.

Matt Ryan and the Falcons put a decisive stamp on the NFC South title and the conference's best record by beating Carolina 31-10 on Sunday in John Fox's last game as Panthers coach.

The Falcons (13-3) earned their first division title since 2004 and a bye next weekend. Team owner Arthur Blank took a bath afterward as players dumped a cooler of liquid on him.

The Falcons had good reason to celebrate only their fourth division title: They are the No. 1 seed in the playoffs for the first time in 30 years.

One of coach Mike Smith's preseason goals was for the Falcons to ''become relevant'' in the NFL.

Mission accomplished.

''We're very relevant,'' Smith said after the win. ''We've worked very hard to attain this position.''

The Falcons have to wait a week to know who they will face on the weekend of Jan. 15-16. Roddy White, who had a touchdown catch, said all that matters is the Falcons know they'll play in the Georgia Dome.

''It's very important,'' White said. ''We rarely lose in this building. We find a way to win here.''

The Falcons are 20-2 in home games started by Ryan the last three years.

Carolina (2-14) had a weak finish to an awful season under Fox, finishing with the NFL's worst record. The league's worst offense was held without a touchdown until the final minute.

The Panthers on Friday formally announced Fox, the team's coach for nine years, and his staff will not return in 2011.

''It's been a heck of a run,'' Fox said. ''A lot of good memories. I know I didn't finish like anybody wanted. I would have never expected to have a nine-year run. If I was given the chance to do it all over again, I would.''

The Panthers were kept out of the end zone until Jimmy Clausen's 2-yard pass to tight end Jeff King with 23 seconds remaining.The rookie completed 19 of 33 passes for 182 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

Carolina can now turn its attention to the search for a new coach and to the No. 1 pick in April.

''There was definitely a lot of emotion before and after the game,'' Clausen said. ''I feel bad that we couldn't get a victory for coach Fox. It was an honor to play for him and I wish him the best of luck.''

The Falcons will have a break at the start of the open week. The time off for Ryan and other starters came early, as backups took over in the fourth quarter.

Ryan passed for 236 yards with touchdowns to Tony Gonzalez and White, and Eric Weems scored on a 55-yard punt return. Ryan went 22 of 32 for 236 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Redman took over on Atlanta's first possession of the fourth quarter.

The Panthers managed only four first downs and 97 total yards in the first half as the Falcons led 21-0.

''We had to make a statement,'' said Falcons defensive end John Abraham. ''We don't consider it the last game of the season but the first game of the playoffs. I'm just excited we're here.''

The Falcons dominated the first half despite being stopped on two fourth-down plays.

Atlanta led 14-0 when fans encouraged Smith to leave his offense on the field for a fourth-and-3 play from the Carolina 4 early in the second period. Smith granted the wish, but Ryan couldn't connect on a pass for White.

On Atlanta's next possession, Ryan was stopped on a fourth-and-1 run from the Carolina 26.

Smith said confidence in his defense influenced his fourth-down decisions. Strong special teams play also helped.

Weems, a Pro Bowl selection on special teams, had his first career punt return for a touchdown after scoring on a kickoff return earlier this season.

''Once I was clean for the first 10 yards, I knew it would be a touchdown,'' Weems said.

Michael Turner added a 3-yard scoring run for Atlanta late in the third quarter, after John Kasay and Matt Bryant traded field goals.

Carolina's offense, last in the league in points, total yards and yards passing, was without leading receiver Steve Smith (calf injury).

Notes: The Falcons only other division titles came in 1980, 1998 and 2004. They also were the NFC's top seed in 1980. ... Ryan's 33rd win matched Dan Marino's mark for most wins by a quarterback in his first three seasons since 1970. ... White passed Terance Mathis' team record of 111 catches in the 1994 season with 115. White also topped his team record for yards receiving in a season with 1,389. ... There was no immediate update on injuries to Falcons CB Brian Williams (knee) and LB Sean Weatherspoon. ... Ryan has at least one touchdown pass in 15 straight games. ... Gonzalez is tied for 10th with Don Maynard with 88 career touchdown catches.

Game stats

Copyright 2010 by STATS LLC and Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

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