Five weeks ago this game, and the rematch in two weeks’ time, looked like it would settle the who got home field advantage in the NFC. Now it might just be the death nail the Falcons’ play-off chances. For the Falcons the last 5 weeks have been one disaster after another. They’ve lost every game, Matt Ryan has thrown 7 interceptions and the holes in the defense are starting to show. Ryan’s increased interception rate is a product of some poor decisions on his part but also the receivers struggling to get open. With Roddy White a shell of his former self teams have been able to focus on Julio Jones and the rest of the Falcons receivers just aren’t good enough to maintain a high-powered passing game. Their ground game has also fallen off from the hot start it had but that was expected. As a result they’re now in serious danger of missing out on the playoffs and will need to win-out to get there. So a trip to the only undefeated team is far from ideal…. For Carolina things are going swimmingly. They locked up the division last week and a win here would give them a 1st round bye. They’re injury free and, last week aside, playing brilliant defense and very good offense. Cam Newton has amassed 3,273 yards passing and rushing and thanks to those 12 wins is the leading MVP candidate. Luke Kuechly is having his best season in the NFL – which is saying something – and Josh Norman has pushed himself into the “Best corner in the NFL” conversation this season. It’s been more than even the most optimistic Panthers fan could have hoped for.
Keys to the game
1. Run the ball!
Atlanta have had a good season running the ball, especially with Devonta Freeman. But they’ve struggled against top level rush defenses. Tampa Bay held them to 3.6 yards a carry in both games this year – half a yard less than their season average. And Carolina are at least as good, if not better against the run. If the Falcons want to win this one they need a consistent ground game. Kyle Shanahan usually has a trick or two up his sleeve when it comes to creating space on the ground but it’s going to have to be pretty special against Kwann Short, Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis.
2. Stay on top of the receivers
The Carolina offense is predicated on forcing defenses to stop the run with 8 players and then hit them over the top on play action passes. Of course some times Ted Ginn Jr will drop it but that’s no way to play defense. Atlanta have one of the best deep pass defenses in the NFL (5th by Football Outsiders DVOA) thanks in part to Desmond Trufant’s excellent play in their cover 3 defense and new Head Coach Dan Quinn’s understanding of how that scheme can be run to minimize damage. It will be a good battle between Ginn’s speed and the discipline of Atlanta’s defensive backs.
3. Contain Cam
Newton’s ability to escape pressure and pick up yards out of nothing can frustrate defenses no end but it’s important that the Falcons stay disciplined on the edges when pass rushing. They also need to be wary of Cam keeping it on option plays. This will put a lot of pressure on 1st round pick Vic Beasley, who leads the defensive line in snaps, and Kroy Biermann to keep the edges locked down. It’s no secret that Atlanta’s pass rush has been abysmal this season – they have the fewest sacks in the NFL with 13 – but to be efficient against Newton doesn’t necessarily mean sacking him. Simply containing him in the pocket could be enough to limit his impact on the game.
Match Up To Watch
Julio Jones vs Josh Norman
The league leader in receiving yards against the NFL’s most improved cornerback; This duel will go a long way to determining Atlanta’s success. If Julio can get open when left alone with Norman then Matt Ryan will have somewhere to go with the ball consistently, but that’s going to be the toughest task Julio has faced all year. Norman’s performance this season is one of the main contributing factors to Carolina being undefeated. They rank 2nd against #1 receivers in DVOA as Norman has racked up 4 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 15 pass deflections and countless frustrated receivers this year. As a Julio Jones fantasy owner I’m down-right nervous about this game. Sure, Shanahan moves Jones around a good deal and uses stacks and bunches to get him a clean release from the line of scrimmage well, but Norman has been able to cope with that this season as well and has had good protection over the top from his safeties, allowing him to play more aggressively than before.
In my Best Bets column I picked Carolina -7.5, meaning I think they’ll win by 8 or more. I think it’s going to be a very long day at the office for an overmatched Atlanta defense. There are only so many places Trufant can be at once and the other 10 players on the field have been disappointing all year. That lack of pressure on the quarterback, combined with a down-turn in offensive production, will be their downfall here. I think the Panthers win by double digits and consign the Falcons to a miserable 6-7 which will see them almost certainly eliminated from playoff contention.