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Carolina Panthers clinch first-round bye in rout of Atlanta Falcons

Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers listens to

Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers listens to the fans cheer during the final seconds of a win against the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium on Dec. 13, 2015 in Charlotte, N.C. Credit: Getty Images / Grant Halverson

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton continued to look like a Most Valuable Player.

The fifth-year quarterback added to his impressive resume, completing 15 of 21 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns, and the unbeaten Carolina Panthers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 38-0 on Sunday to clinch a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.

Newton connected on scoring strikes of 74 and 46 yards to Ted Ginn Jr., and Jonathan Stewart ran for a touchdown as the Panthers (13-0) scored on their first three possessions.

Newton also threw a 4-yard TD pass to Ed Dickson in the final seconds of the first half before leaving for good at the end of the third quarter with Carolina up 38. He finished with a career-high quarterback rating of 153.3, and the Panthers won their 17th straight regular-season game.

Carolina’s defense forced four turnovers and had five sacks, while limiting struggling Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan to 224 yards passing. Atlanta (6-7) has lost six straight games.

Carolina’s 38-point win matched the largest margin of victory in team history. The Panthers outgained Atlanta 424-230.

However, there were some scary moments for Carolina on the injury front.

Stewart (left ankle), who ran for 75 yards on 10 carries, and tight end Greg Olsen (left knee) left the game in the second quarter and did not return. But Rivera said both players could have returned and were held out because the team had a big lead.

However, Rivera said starting cornerback Bene Benwikere broke his left leg and is done for the season.

The Panthers jumped on the Falcons early, scoring on touchdown drives of 80, 93 and 80 yards on their first three possessions.

After the Falcons won the coin toss and elected to defer, the Panthers went to work establishing the ground attack. Stewart rushed five times for 52 yards on the opening drive, including a 44-yard burst. He capped the drive by leaping over the pile for a 1-yard touchdown.

Newton found Ginn along the left sideline on the next drive for a 74-yard touchdown strike. Ginn, who has struggled with dropped passes, made an over-the-head grab despite pass interference on Robert Alford and raced the final 40 yards to the end zone for the 14-point lead.

Newton went back to the air on the next drive, finding Ginn for a 46-yard TD pass over the middle behind the Falcons’ defense. The rout was on.

Ginn has a career-high eight touchdowns on the season, including four in the last two weeks and six in four games against NFC South teams.

Newton left for a play in the second quarter after hitting his funny bone on his own helmet. He returned to throw his third TD of the game to Dickson, who made a diving catch on a slant for a 28-0 lead. It marked the 11th straight game the Panthers have scored at least 27 points.

The Falcons couldn’t get anything going as Devonta Freeman was held to 40 yards on 11 carries. Atlanta’s longest pass play of the game went for 14 yards.

NOTES: Kawann Short broke Kris Jenkins’ record for most sacks (nine) in a single-season by a defensive tackle with two sacks on Ryan, both of which resulted in fumbles, one for a turnover. ... Panthers S Kurt Coleman intercepted his seventh pass of the season, moving him into a tie for the league lead.

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