ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons weren't about to fool around with NFC home-field advantage at their fingertips.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons put a decisive stamp on the NFC South title and the conference's best record by beating Carolina 31-10 on Sunday in John Fox's last game as Panthers coach.
The Falcons (13-3) earned their first division title since 2004 and a bye next weekend. Team owner Arthur Blank took a bath afterward as players dumped a cooler of liquid on him.
The time off for Ryan and other starters came early, as backups took over in the fourth quarter.
Carolina (2-14) had a weak finish to an awful season under Fox as the league's worst offense was held without a touchdown until the final minute.
The Panthers on Friday formally announced Fox and his staff will not return in 2011.
Ryan passed for 236 yards with touchdowns to Tony Gonzalez and Roddy White, and Eric Weems scored on a 55-yard punt return. Ryan went 22 of 32 for 236 yards and two touchdowns. Chris Redman took over on Atlanta's first possession of the fourth quarter.
The Panthers were kept out of the end zone until Jimmy Clausen's 2-yard pass to tight end Jeff King with 23 seconds remaining.The rookie completed 19 of 33 passes for 182 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Carolina can now turn its attention to the search for a new coach and to owning the No. 1 overall pick in April's NFL draft.
The Panthers managed only four first downs and 97 total yards in the first half as the Falcons led 21-0.
The Falcons dominated the first half despite being stopped on two fourth-down plays.
Atlanta led 14-0 when fans encouraged coach Mike Smith to leave his offense on the field for a fourth-and-3 play from the Carolina 4 early in the second period. Smith granted the wish, but Ryan couldn't connect on a pass for White.
On Atlanta's next possession, Ryan was stopped on a fourth-and-1 run from the Carolina 26.
Weems, a Pro Bowl selection on special teams, had his first career punt return for a touchdown after scoring on a kickoff return earlier this season. Michael Turner added a 3-yard scoring run for Atlanta late in the third quarter, after John Kasay and Matt Bryant traded field goals.
Carolina's offense, last in the league in points, total yards and yards passing, was without leading receiver Steve Smith (calf injury). The Panthers, held to a field goal in last week's 27-3 loss to Pittsburgh, were almost kept out of the end zone again.
Rookie Brandon LaFell started for Smith and had four catches for 63 yards plus a 60-yard run on a reverse to set up Kasay's 23-yard field goal in the third quarter.
Including the possession which ended with Kasay's field goal, Carolina finished only three drives in Atlanta territory before the late touchdown. Mike Goodson fumbled on a hit by Thomas DeCoud at the Atlanta 25 early in the second quarter. Jonathan Babineaux sacked Clausen on a fourth-down play from the Atlanta 45 late in the half.
The Falcons' fourth division title came with some personal milestones.
Ryan's 33rd win matched Dan Marino's mark for most wins by a quarterback in his first three seasons since 1970.
When starting at the Georgia Dome, Ryan is 20-2.
White passed Terance Mathis' team record of 111 catches in the 1994 season. With six catches, White has 115.
White also topped his team record for yards receiving in a season. He had 1,382 in 2008 and, with six catches for 62 yards, has 1,389 this season.
Turner had 17 carries for 67 yards and a touchdown, but fumbled from the 13 on Atlanta's second possession. It was Turner's second red-zone fumble in two games.