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Three Key Players for the Carolina Panthers against the Atlanta Falcons

The Carolina Panthers are three quarters of the way to a perfect regular season but have Atlanta Falcons standing in the way, the first of two matchups over a three week span. These are three players that will be key to the Panthers moving one step closer to a perfect season.

Josh Norman

There may not be a bigger matchup in this game than the one between Carolina PanthersJosh Norman and Falcons' Julio Jones as this will pit two of the best at their respective positions. This is one game that Norman has been looking forward to and two weeks ago on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" said that Jones "completes me".

Norman has made a strong case for being the best cornerback in the league and has been playing dominant football. On Thanksgiving, he went up against Dez Bryant and had one of his worst games of the season with only two receptions. 

However, some believe this will be Norman's toughest test like Rodney Harrison who said on Wednesday that Jones has the edge in this game. Norman responded to Harrison the only way he knows how by tweeting that he is horrible at his job.

https://twitter.com/J_No24/status/674944853386510336

The former safety turned commentator may not have seen the two games last year when Norman faced off with Jones and kept him out of the end zone both games. The Falcons' wide receiver finished with a combined 10 catches for 117 yards, which are well below his career averages.

If Norman is able to shut down Jones on Sunday, it changes the dynamic of this offense completely and will make it much tougher for them to score points.

Star Lotulelei

One matchup the Panthers have a clear advantage is in the middle with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei and Falcons' center Mike Person. In his first year as the starter at center for the Falcons, he has been given a rating of -6.7 by Pro Football Focus. The analytic website said that he has allowed 13 QB hurries to date this year.

The former first round pick has not had the best season to date and certainly has not performed as well as his teammate Kawann Short. This is why I believe Lotulelei will be key for this game because the Falcons should focus a majority of their attention to Short which will provide Lotulelei winnable matchups.

While Matt Ryan started the year strong, he has been struggling after the bye with five touchdowns and six interceptions over the past three games. If the Panthers are able to get steady pressure up the middle and right into Ryan's face, it should force him to make a few mistakes that hopefully the defense can capitalize on.

Brad Nortman

This one may be a surprise and the Panthers certainly hope that their punter Brad Nortman doesn't see the field. However, if the team does need him, he will need to be very cognizant of who is returning kicks with Devin Hester back from injured reserve.

The Falcons return man is one of the best the NFL has ever seen and is coming off a Pro Bowl season last year. He hasn't had the same impact this year due to a turf toe injury that put him on injured reserve with the designation to return. 

Nortman this year is in the bottom half in average yards per punt (45) and net yards per punt (39) but on Sunday directional punting will be much more valuable. The Panthers' punter will need to try his best to pin Hester against the sidelines and limit his running lanes. This will allow the coverage team to limit Hester's options and hopefully take away any big plays that could change momentum in the game quickly.

Twitter @BrandonCroce.

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