The Falcons edged a nervy game in New York last week against the Jets, leaving a wet MetLife Stadium with a 25-20 win. Atlanta fell behind on the first drive, but drew level just before the end of the first quarter with a one-yard flip to Austin Hooper. The talented boot of Matt Bryant kept the scoreboard ticking as the offense sputtered. Eventually they would find the end zone again in the fourth quarter with Mohamed Sanu, but the game was far closer than it should have been.
Carolina won a low-scoring affair against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 17-3, with touchdowns from Jonathan Stewart and Kelvin Benjamin bookending the day while the defense harassed Jameis Winston all day, forcing three turnovers and limiting the Bucs to just 279 yards all day.
Kelvin Benjamin was unexpectedly flipped to Buffalo at the trade deadline, leaving the Panthers passing game with Devin Funchess and not a lot else.
Normally without Benjamin, Cam Newton would just lean on tight end Greg Olsen, but he is still out with a broken foot. That leaves Ed Dickson, who killed Detroit earlier this season, and rookies Curtis Samuel and Christian McCaffrey to do most of the playmaking. Can Cam get by without being able to put balls up for the monstrous Benjamin to win?
In 2015 the Panthers offense was a machine that beat teams into submission. In 2016 the Falcons leveled defenses with their aerial attack. Both units let to a losing Super Bowl effort. In 2017 neither team has hit those heights, or even looked close to doing so. Carolina have been a mess all year offensively, averaging just 18.5 points a game, while the Falcons are barely better at 21.9 points a game. Someone needs to find some magic, and the team that does will have the edge.
Running on empty
One of the reasons Carolina’s offense has stumbled recently is that they are struggling to run the ball. They are currently 25th in rushing DVOA and are 29th in the NFL with just 3.4 yards per carry. Both Stewart and McCaffrey are struggling, with teams used to Carolina’s option looks and the offensive line unable to create consistent movement it has been a struggle all year to maintain balance on offense. If they want to win and stay in the NFC South race then they will have to find a ground game soon.
Matchup to Watch: Devonta Freeman vs Luke Kuechly
Kuechly has been in exceptional form once again this season, leading the Panthers with 54 tackles as well as picking off two passes and being the field general for Ron Rivera. While the Falcons passing attack isn’t really functioning, their ground game is working well (when Steve Sarkisian remembers it exists), and while he hasn’t been explosively good this year, Devonta Freeman is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. Atlanta’s zone scheme means defenses have to cover a lot of ground to try and keep Freeman contained, and no one is better at covering ground and making tackles than Kuechly. This will be a wonderful battle all day.
Fantasy Tip: Falcons RB Tevin Coleman
The Panthers defense has been strong all year, but they can be a little vulnerable to running backs leaking out, especially when they blitz and the back springs out as a safety valve. With Kuechly and Freeman battering each other, the fresh legs and big play ability of Coleman could end up punishing them. Coleman has nine plays of 20+ yards this season and is averaging 5.4 yards a carry. He will get good yards, and if he finds the endzone you’ll be laughing.
Betting Tip: Falcons (-1.5)
This is going to be a tight game, but Atlanta are far more secure offensively than the Panthers, and are still able to put up points. You’re giving less than a field goal so take the best team.
Prediction: Falcons 24 – 17 Panthers
Last year Julio Jones put up 300 yards against the Panthers. While that is extremely unlikely to repeat, the Falcons have enough talent on the outside to bypass the strengths of Carolina’s defense and attack the weaknesses. That alone is enough to think they will take this one.
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