LOS ANGELES: Quarterback Cam Newton threw three touchdown passes and his Carolina Panthers pummelled the Atlanta Falcons 38-0 on Sunday (Monday in Manila) to earn an NFL playoff first-round bye.
As the 13-0 Panthers moved a step closer to securing home field advantage throughout the post-season, the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots booked a playoff berth with a 27-6 victory over the Houston Texans.
Patriots tight end Rob Gron¬kowski returned from a knee injury and made an immediate impact, set¬ting up a touchdown in the first quarter and catching a TD pass from quarterback Tom Brady in the second as the Patriots built an early lead.
Gronkowski finished with four receptions for 87 yards. Brady, sacked three times, completed 22 of 30 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns without an interception.
New England’s defense also did their part, sacking Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer five times before knocking him out of the game in the fourth quarter.
The victory, along with defeats for the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos, saw the 11-2 Patriots move back to the top spot in the American Football Conference.
The Pats ended a two-game skid, while the National Football Conference-leading Panthers continued their march toward a perfect regular season.
Against a Falcons team in free-fall, Newton connected on two first-half touchdown passes to wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr.
Carolina’s 260 total yards in the first quarter marked a club record for any quarter.
“It was important for us to come out fast and get touchdowns instead of field goals,” said Newton, whose team had clinched the NFC South division title last week with a narrow win at New Orleans.
Bolstering his Most Valuable Player credentials, Newton completed 15 of 21 passes for 265 yards before he was replaced by backup Derek Anderson late in the third quarter with the Panthers up 38-0.
It wasn’t all good news for the Panthers, however.
Leading rusher Jonathan Stewart—who ran for a touchdown as the Panthers scored on their first three possessions—left the game with a possible sprained foot, and Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen hurt a knee.
Injuries were an even bigger concern for the Bengals, who lost quarterback Andy Dalton to a broken thumb in the second quarter of a 33-20 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
His injury, and a concussion that knocked tight end Tyler Eifert out of the game, were a blow to a Bengals team that failed to clinch the AFC North division title.
Denver, who went into the day as the AFC’s top seed, also endured a setback as the Oakland Raiders rallied from a 12-0 halftime deficit to beat the Broncos 15-12.
“It was looking rough, but the positive was defensively, we kept them out of the end zone, limited them to field goals in the first half,” said Raiders safety Charles Woodson, who appeared in his 250th regular-season game, the most among active defensive players.
Seahawks rout Ravens
The Seattle Seahawks kept their hopes of reaching a third straight Super Bowl alive with a convincing 35-6 win over the Ravens in Baltimore.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw five touchdown passes, but Seattle lost running back Thomas Rawls to a season-ending broken ankle.
The injury brought an abrupt end to a stellar rookie campaign in which Rawls had 830 yards and four touchdowns filling in for injured starter Marshawn Lynch, who is recovering for surgery for a sports hernia.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles spoiled LeSean McCoy’s homecoming, beating the Buffalo Bills 23-20 to stay tied for first place in the NFC East with the Washington Redskins — 24-21 winners over the Chicago Bears.
The Kansas City Chiefs stretched their winning streak to seven games with a 10-3 victory over the San Diego Chargers. The Chiefs improved to 8-5 and lead the chase for an AFC wild-card berth.