ATLANTA – The Carolina Panthers' big-play defense appears capable of making a difference in the playoffs, even for a team with a losing record.
Roman Harper and Tre Boston returned interceptions for touchdowns and Carolina recorded six sacks, leading the Panthers to a 34-3 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday to win the woeful NFC South.
Carolina (7-8-1) will play host to Arizona in a wild-card playoff game Saturday. The losing record didn't keep the Panthers from celebrating their first back-to-back playoff seasons in franchise history.
"It feels great," Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart said. "I mean, it's a blessing and you just have to cherish these moments right now. … We just believed and played our hearts out and this is where we are."
The Panthers have won four in a row, but they still are the first team to enter the playoffs with a losing record since 2010, when Seattle was 7-9.
"The beautiful thing — record doesn't matter," coach Ron Rivera said. "That's the best part."
Harper scored on a 31-yard return in the second quarter and Boston clinched the victory with his 84-yard interception return late in the third quarter. A 33-yard fumble return by Thomas Davis set up another touchdown.
"It was a great defensive effort," Rivera said.
The Falcons (6-10) were booed as they finished their second consecutive losing season under embattled coach Mike Smith. Atlanta is 10-22 since falling to San Francisco in the 2012 NFC Championship Game, yet they could have claimed the NFC South by beating Carolina.
Smith acknowledged the results have not met the standards he set with winning records in each of his first five years.
"This is a business about winning football games and that's how you're judged," Smith said. "I understand that, and I'll leave it at that."