Defensive resurgence keys playoff-bound Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Panthers are back in the playoffs, thanks in large part to the resurgence of their defense.

The Panthers clinched the NFC South with a 34-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, a win punctuated by a pair of interception returns for touchdowns by safeties Roman Harper and Tre Boston.

They'll host the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday in an NFC wild-card game.

Carolina's win Sunday was the culmination of a big turnaround for its defense, which ranked 27th in the NFL through Week 7, but rallied to finish in the top 10 for the third straight year under coordinator Sean McDermott.

The Panthers (7-8-1) allowed 388.3 yards and 27.9 points per game in their first seven games. They allowed just 302.1 yards and 19.8 points per game over the final nine games.

''When I looked at it, I felt we had to put more speed in the defensive secondary,'' Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Monday.

That meant releasing defensive backs Charles Godfrey and Antoine Cason, and moving cornerback Josh Norman into the starting lineup. It also meant adding young, but aggressive rookie defensive backs Bene Benwikere and Boston to the starting mix after recovering from early season injuries.

''We were trying to find answers as a coaching staff, the right combination of guys - and we found it,'' Rivera said.

Rivera also credits the emergence of defensive end Charles Johnson as a huge reason for the turnaround.

Johnson, a normally reserved eight-year veteran, has stepped into a leadership role down the stretch.

It was Johnson who spoke to the team after the win on Sunday, telling them beating the Falcons isn't enough and ''we're not done.''

''He's a unique individual,'' Rivera said. ''He cares a lot, but he's really guarded. Lately he's been very emotional and very outspoken, which in my opinion is very uncharacteristic of him. But I'm glad he's doing it.''

Johnson also helped get the team's mindset right midway through the season when it became clear Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy would not be returning this season following the fallout from his domestic violence conviction.

Hardy had 15 sacks last season.

''I do think there was a part of us that said, `Guys, we've got to get past it. We've got to move on,''' Rivera said. ''And it's hard because he's such an integral part of what we had planned for going into this year and what he was for us last year. So was he missed? Most certainly. But I think it's also been part of what's helped with Charles now, is knowing that `Hey, I'm the guy.'''

Carolina's pass rush has excelled in December, getting 13 sacks during a four-game win streak.

''We saw glimmers of hope but we stayed consistent with what we asking the players to do and they continued to buy in,'' McDermott said of the team's early season struggles. ''We've made some personnel moves that worked out in our favor and developed some newer players and we just continued to improve every week.''

To win their first playoff game since 2005, the Panthers must exorcise some old demons.

In 2008, the Cardinals (11-5) came into Charlotte and upset the second-seeded Panthers 33-13 in one of the most painful losses in franchise history.

This would appear to be a good matchup for the Panthers defense given the uncertainty surrounding Arizona's quarterback situation and the fact the Cardinals have lost four of their past six games.

Carson Palmer is out for the season and primary backup Drew Stanton's status for this weekend remains uncertain.

Ryan Lindley is 0-2 as his replacement.

He's thrown four interceptions and two touchdown passes and has been sacked six times in those two defeats.

---

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.