Brees, defensive stand, help Saints survive Panthers, 31-26

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) Drew Brees passed for 376 yards and two touchdowns, and the New Orleans Saints held off Carolina’s late comeback bid to seal a 31-26 victory in their NFC wild-card game on Sunday.

The Panthers had a first down on the Saints 26-yard line with 58 seconds left, but heavy pressure by All-Pro defensive end Cameron Jordan a couple plays later induced an intentional grounding penalty on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, making it third-and-25 on the Saints 34 and a required 10-second runoff left 22 seconds on the clock.

After an incompletion in the end zone on third down, Vonn Bell sacked Newton on a safety blitz, ensuring the Saints (12-5) swept all three meetings with Carolina (11-6) this season, in addition to winning their first playoff game in four seasons.

“We wanted it more,” Jordan said. “I mean they’ve been to their Super Bowl, let `em go to another one next year. We want our run.”

Brees’ touchdowns went for 80-yards to Ted Ginn and 9 yards to tight end Josh Hill. Fullback Zach Line and running back Alvin Kamara each ran for short touchdowns, the latter set up by Michael Thomas 46-yard reception.

Thomas caught eight passes for 131 yards on a day when the Saints needed the passing game to compensate for a ground game that struggled to get going.

Helped by the presence of tight end Greg Olsen – who did not play in the teams’ previous two meetings – Newton marched Carolina into Saints territory more often than not. But the Panthers stalled four times from inside the New Orleans 25, settling for four field goal attempts on those drives, one of which kicker Graham Gano surprisingly missed.

Olsen had eight catches for 107 yards and a touchdown. Newton finished 24 of 40 passing for 349 yards and two touchdowns, the other a 56-yard scoring strike to Christian McCaffrey that pulled the Panthers within a touchdown with 4:09 left.

But Newton was also sacked four times, once each by Bell, Jordan, Jonathan Freeney, and David Onyemata. The sack by Onyemata came as Newton tried to spin away from Tyeler Davison and slammed his head into Onyemata’s chest. Newton was checked for a concussion, but missed only one play before returning to the game.

“We had to finish out the game and put it on our defense, put it on me, put it on our secondary, our D-line,” Jordan said. “I mean, everybody responded the way we were supposed to.”

Still, the Panthers were in striking distance for the win after a failed gamble by Saints coach Sean Payton, who elected to keep the offense on the field on fourth-and-short with two minutes remaining. He hoped to run out the clock on Carolina, which was out of timeouts. It backfired when Brees’ pass as he scrambled to his right was intercepted by Adams, giving Carolina the ball at its 31 with 1:51 to go.

“This win is special,” Jordan said. “They came back late in the fourth quarter, made this a game.”

INJURIES

Panthers: Newton missed one play – a failed third-and-long – while being evaluated for a concussion after Onyemata’s sack. Cornerback Daryl Worley briefly was placed in the concussion protocol but also cleared to return during the game.

Saints: Starting left guard Andrus Peat was carted off the field with a left shin injury. His replacement, Senio Kelemete, later needed help off the field for an undisclosed injury.

UP NEXT

Panthers: Begin their offseason.

Saints: Move on to play at Minnesota in the NFC Divisional playoffs.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Falcons clinch playoff spot, beat Panthers on Bryant’s 5 FGs

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ATLANTA (AP) Matt Bryant kicked five field goals, including a 56-yarder, for all of Atlanta’s second-half points and the Falcons clinched a playoff spot by beating the Carolina Panthers 22-10 on Sunday.

After the teams played to a 7-7 halftime tie, the 42-year-old Bryant kicked field goals of 30, 42, 30, 56 and 33 yards without a miss.

Atlanta (10-6) clinched the No. 6 seed in the NFC and will play at the Los Angeles Rams next week in the first round of the playoffs.

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On a day when Cam Newton and the Panthers’ offense struggled, Bryant’s 15 points provided a margin too great for Carolina to overcome.

The Panthers (11-5) had a playoff spot secured entering the weekend, but they couldn’t improve their position.

Minnesota’s 23-10 win over Chicago earlier Sunday ended the Panthers’ hopes of a first-round bye. The loss to the Falcons ended Carolina’s goal of winning the NFC South, and the Panthers will open the playoffs at New Orleans.

Matt Ryan completed 28 of 45 passes for 317 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown pass to Devonta Freeman on Atlanta’s opening drive, and no interceptions.

The Panthers pulled even on Newton’s 4-yard scoring pass to Devin Funchess late in the first half.

Newton threw three second-half interceptions. The third interception, by Robert Alford in the end zone with 8 seconds remaining, ended the Panthers’ final drive. Newton completed 14 of 34 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown.

With the game tied in the third quarter, the Falcons had an apparent touchdown taken off the board when a review showed Mohamed Sanu didn’t maintain control of a 12-yard catch in the end zone. The ball hit the ground after Sanu collided with Julio Jones, who also was crossing to the middle of the end zone.

The Falcons settled for Bryant’s first 30-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.

Newton led the Panthers on a 16-play touchdown drive that consumed more than half of the second quarter and tied the game at 7. Newton gained the needed yard on a fourth-down keeper, but the true back-breaking play for Atlanta’s defense was his 27-yard pass to Brenton Bersin on a third-and-23 play. The pass set up Newton’s 4-yard scoring pass to Funchess.

SLOW START

Newton was 0 for 9 before finally completing his final seven passes of the first half. Newton completed his first pass to McCaffrey – for a loss of 3 yards – midway through the second quarter.

MILESTONE FOR JULIO

Jones caught a 14-yard pass midway through the third quarter to reach 9,000 career yards faster than any receiver since the 1970 merger.

The two-time All-Pro and five-time Pro Bowl selection last month set the league mark with the most catches and yards receiving in a receiver’s first 90 games.

Jones finished with five catches for 80 yards. He survived an injury scare after he took a big hit from Carolina strong safety Mike Adams on the opening drive. He returned to the field on the same drive, which ended with Ryan’s touchdown pass to Freeman.

NO STEWART

Running back Jonathan Stewart was due to back tightness. The Panthers also were without two more starters: safety Kurt Coleman (ankle), and right guard Trai Turner (concussion).

UP NEXT

Panthers: Carolina will play at New Orleans next week in the first round of the NFC playoffs.

Falcons: Atlanta will visit the Rams next week in the first round of the playoffs.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Falcons among betting favorites in pivotal NFL Week 17 games

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The Atlanta Falcons and Matt Ryan, whose playoff hopes are dependent on Week 17 results, take a strong head-to-head trend into a game against the Carolina Panthers this weekend.

In the only matchup of a crowded NFL Week 17 slate that has playoff implications for both teams, the Falcons are four-point betting favorites against the Cam Newton-led Panthers with a 45-point total at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

The Falcons, who essentially need a win or a Seattle Seahawks loss in order to earn an NFC wild card berth, are 7-2 against the spread in their last nine home games against the Panthers. However, the OddsShark NFL Database reveals that the Panthers have an identical 7-2 ATS mark over their last nine road games.

Speaking of Seattle, the Seahawks are 9.5-point favorites against the Arizona Cardinals with a 39-point total. The visiting team is 5-0-1 SU and ATS in its last six games in this matchup. The Seahawks, who deep-sixed the Dallas Cowboys’ playoff hopes during Week 16, are 7-2 ATS in their last nine games after winning as an underdog.

The Minnesota Vikings, who simply need to win to join the No. 1 seed Philadelphia Eagles as a bye team, are 11.5-point favorites against the Chicago Bears with a 39.5 total. The Bears are 0-5 SU and 1-4 ATS in their last five games on the road against the Vikings. The total has gone under in 11 of the Vikings’ last 13 divisional games.

The New Orleans Saints, who need a win or a Carolina loss to clinch the NFC South, are seven-point road favorites against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a 50.5 total. The Saints are 11-0 SU and 8-3 ATS in their last 11 games as a favorite. The Buccaneers are 7-20 ATS in their last 27 games at home in December.

The San Francisco 49ers are 3.5-point road favorites, with a 43.5 total, against the Los Angeles Rams, who will be either the NFC’s No. 3 or 4 seed. The 49ers are 3-1 SU and 4-0 ATS in their last four games against the Rams.

The moving parts in the AFC playoff picture involve the Nos. 1 and 2-seeded bye teams – the New England Patriots and the Pittsburgh Steelers – and the two wild cards.

The Patriots, who hold the tiebreaker over the Steelers, are 15.5-point favorites against the New York Jets with a 44 total. The Jets are 7-1-1 ATS in their last nine games against the Patriots. The total has gone over in 13 of the Patriots’ last 17 games at home in December.

The Steelers, who might take out starters if it appears wrestling home-field advantage from the Patriots is out of reach, are 10.5-point favorites against the Cleveland Browns with a 38 total. The total has gone over in 10 of the Browns’ last 14 road games. The Steelers, who had a Christmas Day blowout win against Houston in Week 16, are 2-5 ATS in their last seven games after an ATS win.

The Baltimore Ravens, who can lose and still get an AFC wild card spot, are 9.5-point favorites against the Cincinnati Bengals with a 40 total. The Bengals are 5-2 ATS in their last seven games. The total has gone over in six of the Ravens’ last eight games in December.

Among other AFC wild card hopefuls, the Tennessee Titans are 3.5-point favorites against the Jacksonville Jaguars with a 41.5 total. The total has gone over in the Jaguars’ last 10 games in the late afternoon. The Titans are 5-1 SU in their last six games at home.

The Los Angeles Chargers are eight-point favorites against the Oakland Raiders with a 42-point total. The Raiders are 7-1 ATS in their last eight road games against the Chargers. The Chargers are 2-7 ATS in their last nine games at home in December.

And the Buffalo Bills are 2.5-point favorites against the Miami Dolphins with a 42.5 total. The Bills are 2-8 SU and 3-7 ATS in their last 10 games in the late afternoon. The Dolphins are 5-14 ATS in their last 19 games in December.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.