Carolina Panthers free safety Tre Boston (33) runs back a intercepted ball against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Atlanta. Boston scored on the play. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore
December 29, 2014

ATLANTA (AP) Coach Ron Rivera and the Carolina Panthers are headed back to the playoffs.

Owner Arthur Blank and the Atlanta Falcons could be preparing to hire a new head coach.

In a winner-take-all regular season finale, the Panthers easily beat the Falcons 34-3 to win the weak NFC South on Sunday.

The victory gave Carolina (7-8-1) a division title for a second straight year, a first-time achievement for the franchise, as the Panthers prepare to host Arizona in a wild-card playoff game on Saturday.

Atlanta (6-10) has collapsed since nearly winning the NFC title game two years ago. The Falcons, losers in 22 of their last 32 games, could have different leadership in the next few days if Blank fires Smith in the next day or so.

Though Smith won two division titles and made four playoff appearances in his first five years, those achievements weren't enough to prevent Atlanta's collapse over the last two seasons.

If he is fired, Smith will leave as the winningest coach in the Falcons' 49-year history.

Smith said he never saw Sunday's horrible performance coming after what he thought was a good week of practice and game-planning.

''It sends a signal to me that I didn't get the job done,'' Smith said. ''I'm the one that's held responsible for it.''

A few things to consider for both teams:

WHAT'S NEXT: While Blank decides what to do with Smith, Rivera will have his team back at work preparing for Arizona.

Despite being 3-8-1 following a lopsided loss at Minnesota on Nov. 30, Carolina rallied while division rivals Atlanta and New Orleans fell apart.

''Our guys are the kind of guys that we want,'' Rivera said, ''and I just felt if we kept playing and kept taking care of our business that we would get that opportunity.''

EVEN KEEL: To avoid a letdown against the Cardinals, linebacker Thomas Davis wants everyone in the Carolina locker room to remember how empty it felt to lose at home in the playoffs last year to San Francisco.

''We hosted a playoff game last year and didn't fare well,'' Davis said. ''We understand that as a team. We're going to remain focused, and we have to make sure we do a good job of making sure that we take care of business at home.''

MIX 'EM UP: Falcons receiver Roddy White said the offense was surprised by the zone coverage Carolina deployed and was disappointed that Atlanta never seemed to adjust.

''They mixed up a bunch of different coverages and didn't play a whole lot of man coverages,'' White said. ''They dropped eight, they dropped seven and they rallied to the ball. They did a good job of that and kind of confused us early in the game that we weren't prepared for.''

YOUNG AND TOUGH: The Panthers, who started a franchise-record seven rookies on both sides of the line in last Sunday's home win over Cleveland, got a boost defensively from rookie starters Bene Benwikere and Tre Boston and reserves Adarius Glanton and Kony Ealy.

The foursome combined for 10 solo tackles, one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and one pass breakup.

Said Boston, who picked off Matt Ryan's pass to Harry Douglas and returned it 84 yards for a touchdown on the last play of the third quarter, ''I think it was our best overall defensive game that we played this season. From seven, back seven, we just all did our jobs. We're coached to play to our potential.''

LONG, HARD FALL: Ryan wanted to win the game and the division, not just for Smith, but for everybody on the team.

''I think it was about everyone in our organization,'' Ryan said. ''I think when we came into this game, it wasn't just about Mike. It was about us as a team. We wanted to continue to play and we felt like we had the right team to do that.''

BY THE NUMBERS: Rivera improved his career December record to 15-3 since 2011. ... The Falcons dropped to 5-1 against the NFC South. They went 1-9 outside the division. ... Panthers QB Cam Newton has averaged 7.7 yards per carry in 60 career rushing attempts against Atlanta. Newton was Carolina's leading rusher with 51 yards. The team finished with 194 to just 63 for Atlanta.

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