ATLANTA — There was no elephant in the huddle when the Carolina Panthers defense took the field to make one final stand Sunday.
The defense knew what had happened last year in the Georgia Dome, and the Panthers didn’t want a repeat.
The Panthers held Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons offense at bay in the final minute of the game to win 21-20, but the stymied drive didn’t come without flashbacks of last year’s 30-28 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta.
That was when free safety Haruki Nakamura allowed receiver Roddy White to get behind him in coverage for a 59-yard pass from the Atlanta 1. The Falcons went on to kick the winning field goal with 10 seconds left.
“It was the exact same situation when you think about it,” middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “Great punt by Brad (Nortman) and then it’s on us. It just shows where we’ve grown and where we’re at now.”
On Sunday, Atlanta would make it from its own 12 to its 43 with 39 seconds left before a botched snap took the Falcons out of threatening range.
Free safety Mike Mitchell wasn’t with the team last year, but he said he was “100 percent aware” of what transpired the last time the Panthers were in the Georgia Dome.
“I just kept telling the guys relax and make the play when it comes to you,” Mitchell said. “I knew as long as I was deep we weren’t going to have one of those plays. I was confident. I just wanted to remind (cornerback) Melvin (White), a younger player, hey this is what we do. We’ve been here before, stay calm, let’s execute our defense and that’s what we did.”
Season turnaround : The Panthers became just the third team since 2002 to begin a season 1-3 and finish with a top-two seed in the playoffs.
Carolina began the season with losses to Seattle, Buffalo and Arizona and a win against the Giants before winning 11 of its last 12 for the NFC South title.
“You never know, but we knew if we stuck together things were going to be good,” Kuechly said about the team’s playoff chances at 1-3. “We worked the whole year, everybody stayed tight as a group and a team. When you play as a team – all three phases – you come out with wins.”
In 2002, the first year of the current division alignments, the Titans started 1-3 and later got the AFC’s No. 2 seed. Three years later, the Bears started 1-3 and got the NFC’s No. 2 seed. No team has started 1-3 and received a No. 1 seed.
Tolbert’s big hit : Fullback Mike Tolbert’s hit on Falcons safety William Moore was possibly the biggest hit of the game.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula called a draw to Tolbert on second and 10 from the Atlanta 20 with 32 seconds left in the first half and the Panthers with two timeouts. Tolbert shot through a big gap in the line, reached the second level of the Atlanta defense, lowered his shoulder and blew through the 6-foot, 221-pound Moore.
“Boom. Get out of my way,” Tolbert said while watching a replay of the play in the locker room after the game.
He rushed to the 3 for a gain of 17 before being tackled by as many as four Falcons near the goal line.
“I’m not even going to lie, I was frustrated at the way we were going offensively,” he said. “I saw the seam and it was either try to break for a touchdown or run through somebody. I chose to run at somebody.”
Gonzo’s finale : The Falcons said goodbye to tight end Tony Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer who spent the last five of his 17 NFL seasons in Atlanta.
The Falcons honored Gonzalez at halftime, setting up a red carpet and platform on the field. It was classy and emotional and Gonzalez did his best not to make it distracting to his team’s performance.
“It’s just about snapping in and snapping out and trying to control those emotions because they were running through me today,” he said. “Then the game comes up and you’re all intense, trying to go out there and do what you’ve been doing for 17 years.”
Gonzalez had his extended family – about 40 people – on the sideline for the halftime ceremony.
Falcons coach Mike Smith asked Gonzalez to address the team Saturday night.
“My message was, ‘Learn something from this year. There’s a lot of growing you can have when you’re in adversity, when you’re in a losing situation,’ ” he said.
Injury update : Running back Jonathan Stewart missed his third straight game with a knee injury, and he said he feels good about his chances to return for the playoffs.
“I’m just glad we have a bye week, so we’ll see how this bye week goes,” he said.
“Time is always good for an injury. I’m just going to keep working, getting it stronger.”
Tight end Ben Hartsock had his right leg rolled up on during the second quarter at did not return. Mitchell seemed to injure his shoulder, an injury he dealt with earlier this season, during the second half and had to come out of the game for a few snaps. After the game he did not disclose his injury.
• Former world boxing champion Evander Holyfield was at the game. He carried an unlit Olympic torch onto the field while being honored.
• A strong “Luuuuuke” chant could be heard in the Georgia Dome after one of Kuechly’s second-half tackles.
• With no Falcons games left in the Georgia Dome, stadium workers pressure-washed the Falcons’ logos off the field and began painting Chick-fil-A Bowl logos after the game.
• Team owner Jerry Richardson had a Panthers division champions hat in his possession when he left the locker room after the game but was not wearing it.
• Tight end Greg Olsen couldn’t remember if he caught Cam Newton’s fastball touchdown with his hands or his chest because it happened so quickly. He said Newton has to throw one of the hardest balls in the NFL.
By the numbers
72 Rushing yards for Newton, a season high.
5 Receiving touchdowns for Ted Ginn Jr., tying a career high.
7 Third-down conversions for the Panthers on 15 tries after having zero against the Saints.
747 Receiving yards for Olsen, who is the first non-wide receiver to lead the Panthers in the category.
7 Games the Panthers have won this season with Newton throwing for fewer than 200 yards.
• “This is the best feeling I’ve had since I won a high school state championship.” – Mitchell.
• “It was a good defense that we were going against and a really good front seven, and we made some mistakes.” – Ryan.
• “At the end of the day, we weren’t able to make the plays when it counted. That cost us big this season.” – Atlanta defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
• “It kind of felt like a home game.” – Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith.
Staff writer Rick Bonnell contributed.