The X Factors, Week 14

The Carolina Panthers are set for the first of two games against the Atlanta Falcons. Who needs to step up to help John Fox's squad take down the best team in the NFC? Panther Insider's Michael Stolp breaks it down.

LB Nic Harris

The Falcons come into this contest with the best record in the NFC; the Panthers have the worst record in the entire league. However, the Falcons have a tendency to play down to their competition.

Covering Roddy White has been a problem for everyone this season and the Panthers figure to struggle stopping the league's receptions leader. However, should they have any luck containing White, Matt Ryan's security blanket is Tony Gonzalez.

It will be up to Harris to blanket Gonzalez and force Ryan to look further in his progressions. The Panthers' pass rush could use any extra seconds to get to Ryan and try to force a turnover, which the Panthers will need if they want to have any chance of pulling off the mammoth upset.

WR Steve Smith
Otto Greule Jr./Getty
WR Steve Smith

It has come to this for Carolina's long-time deep threat. He is an X-factor, primarily because he hasn't been a factor of any kind this season.

Most of that isn't Smith's fault, as there haven't been many positive factors on the field for the Panthers. But Smith has become an afterthought. Opponents realize Jimmy Clausen can't get the ball to his deep threats with any consistency and sometimes aren't even bothering to double-cover Smith, once one of the NFL's premier targets.

Again, given the Falcons' history this season, the Panthers should be in this game. A vintage Steve Smith play or two could give whatever fans show up on Sunday something to cheer about.

HC John Fox

Throughout all of the misery this season, it has been clear that the players have not quit on their lame-duck coach. Granted, some players are young and still trying to prove themselves, while others know they are playing for jobs elsewhere.

Fox knows no matter much talent there is or isn't on this roster, any future employer is going to want to know that he can still get something out of players when all seems lost. In what will be his second-to-last home game with the organization, Fox has to want nothing more than to give this fan base one last thing to smile about.

What should the Panthers do about their coach? Discuss in the message boards.

Michael Stolp is a graduate of Wilkes University with a degree in Communications. He grew up in Piscataway, N.J., and recently relocated to Charlotte, NC. To follow his personal blog, click here.

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