The marquee matchup on Sunday is sure to be Josh Norman facing off with Falcons’ wide receiver Julio Jones. The key matchup on Sunday though, and the one that could determine whether the Panthers are successful or not, is between Bene Benwikere and Roddy White.
In the first game between these two teams, White was the Falcons leading receiver with eight receptions for 75 yards and a touchdown. He was going up against now released cornerback Antoine Cason for most of the game.
Since that game, Cason has been replaced by the rookie Benwikere. The fifth-round rookie has done an excellent job since being promoted to starting cornerback. According to Pro Football Focus, Benwikere has been targeted 10 times the past two weeks but only allowed four receptions for a total of 32 yards.
Panthers' Kick Coverage Teams vs. Devin Hester
This is one matchup that seems to favor the Atlanta Falcons and Devin Hester. The Panthers’ kick coverage teams ranks 32nd in opponent’s average yards per kickoff return (31.8 yards) and average yards per punt return (15.5 yards). The Panthers’ special teams has been a weak point all year but they will need a strong performance on Sunday.
The Panthers will try to contain one of the best returners to ever play the game in Devin Hester. He makes game-changing plays and doesn’t need a whole lot of room to do it. Hester currently leads the NFL in kickoff return yards with 1021 and is averaging 24.3 yards per return. He also ranks first among returners with at least 15 punt returns this year with an average of 13.3 yards per return.
The first time these two teams played, the Panthers did a good job of keeping the ball away from Hester and not giving him a chance at making that big play. Brad Nortman punted the ball six times but Hester was only able to return one (which he returned 19 yards). Nortman will need to have a similar game to keep Hester in check.
Ron Rivera vs. Late Game Situations
After the first game, Ron Rivera was questioned about how he handled the end of the game. There was some concern about Rivera being too conservative, which he admitted during his press conference on Monday was probably the case. The Panthers coach thought he could pick the first down up by running the ball however the Panthers were stopped. This led to Graham Gano missing a 46-yard field goal with under two minutes left in the game.
It will be interesting to see if the Panthers are in a similar situation on Sunday and if Rivera and the coaching staff change up the game plan. The offense may actually be successful this time around though with the same game plan. They are executing at a much better level than they were in Week 13. Jonathan Stewart is leading the NFL the past four weeks on the ground and if he is given the ball three straight times, there is a good possibility he picks up the first down.
Another deciding factor could be how erratic kicker Graham Gano has been as of late. He started the year 17 of 19 (89.5%) over the first 10 games of the season. However the past five games he has gone 10 of 14 (71.4%) and missed at least one field goal attempt the past two weeks.
It would not be a surprise if the Panthers need a field goal at the end of the game, Rivera is much more aggressive until they are at a reasonable distance (less than a 40 yard field goal attempt).