ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons were given a chance to make up for a disappointing season.
Instead of being labeled as losers, the Falcons could have been NFC South champions. For added motivation, the Carolina Panthers, their closest regional and division rival were in town.
Oh, and coach Mike Smith's job may have been on the line.
With so much at stake, the Falcons played as if they were ready for the season to end in an embarrassing 34-3 loss to Carolina on Sunday, sending the Panthers to the playoffs.
"It was a sad ending to a long season," Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux said.
Said offensive guard Justin Blalock: "We were unable to save ourselves."
Falcons fans booed and then left early, leaving Panthers to celebrate back-to-back playoff seasons for the first time in franchise history.
Back-to-back losing seasons could end Smith's seven-year run as Atlanta's coach.
The Falcons (6-10) were booed as they finished their second straight losing season under embattled coach Mike Smith.
Atlanta is 10-22 since falling to San Francisco in the 2012 NFC championship game.
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."
With a playoff spot — and perhaps Smith's future — on the line, the Falcons committed three turnovers and were held without a touchdown.
Smith said he was "very disappointed" and called the performance "not acceptable at all."
Roman Harper and Tre Boston returned interceptions for touchdowns and Carolina's defense constantly disrupted quarterback Matt Ryan's efforts. Ryan, who was sacked six times, said "everyone was disappointed" by the ugly end to the season.
"They executed at a high level," said Ryan of the Panthers. "We did not, across the board. When you do that, you are going to lose games."
Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant said Smith's postgame message to the players was "that's not how you want to end it."
"We knew the opportunity we had," Trufant said. "We knew we could make the playoffs and we controlled our own destiny. For whatever reason, we didn't show up. That was pretty much the message."
Carolina (7-8-1) will host Arizona in a wild-card playoff game on Saturday. The Panthers have won four straight, but 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," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "That's the best part."
Harper scored on a 31-yard return in the second quarter and Boston added his 84-yard interception return late in the third quarter. A 33-yard fumble return by Thomas Davis set up another touchdown.
With star receiver Julio Jones contained by cornerback Josh Norman, Ryan couldn't move the Falcons offense. Ryan completed 29 of 47 passes for 260 yards with two interceptions. Jones had only four catches for 58 yards.
Falcons starting running back Steven Jackson was inactive with a quadriceps injury, and fill-ins Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman combined to run for only 57 yards.
Carolina's Cam Newton completed 10 of 16 passes for 114 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown pass to Ed Dickson in the first quarter. Newton also had a 4-yard scoring run.
The Panthers did not have a turnover.
The Panthers also clinched their 2013 playoff berth with a Week 17 win at Atlanta. The Panthers had nine sacks in that 21-20 win, and they were similarly effective with six sacks on Sunday.
NOTES: Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams (broken hand) was inactive. ... Falcons safeties Dwight Lowery (knee) and Kemal Ishmael (hamstring) left the game. ... The Falcons took their first loss of the season against a NFC South opponent.