There’s just four weeks left to go in the NFL season and the Carolina Panthers are just four weeks away from possibly finishing undefeated for the regular season, but first they’ll have to take down the Atlanta Falcons in the first meeting of the season against their divisional foe.
The Panthers pulled out a tight, nail-biting victory over the Saints last week where their defense was exposed by a top tier quarterback in Drew Brees. Now, Matt Ryan is no Brees but still has above-average ability as a passer and has one of the league’s best targets to throw to with Julio Jones on the outside as well as an emerging running back in Devonta Freeman, meaning the Carolina defense will once again have their hands full.
The bright side of the previous matchup though was the solidifying of Cam Newton as a quarterback capable of putting his team on his back and gutting out tough wins in crunch time as he showed with his numerous touchdown drives to answer New Orleans.
Playing the Falcons twice in three weeks will be an interesting task for the Panthers and in this first home matchup, here’s what you should watch for.
Needless to say, last week was easily the worst outing of the season for the Panthers’ defense and a lot will need to be corrected to ensure they don’t falter again.
As previously mentioned, Atlanta hosts a solid trio of playmakers between Ryan, Jones and Freeman and keeping a focus all three will be essential in stopping the Falcon’s offense from getting anything going.
Luckily for Carolina though, Ryan and this offense have been reeling since their hot start and have been nothing short of atrocious once they reach the red zone. Ryan tends to force the ball towards Jones and has thrown six interceptions in the last three weeks and hasn’t thrown over 300-yards since early November. And Freeman has lacked the production of early since returning from injury with no scores since Week 6.
This matchup will be highlighted by the Josh Norman battle with Jones but the spotlight should really be on Luke Kuechly who will need keep up his impeccable audible calling and defensive play calling to further frustrated Ryan and get the Panthers’ defense in position to shut the Falcons offense down.
Cam the Maestro
With the Panthers undefeated season, Newton has been lauded as the primary factor and right now, sits as the top MVP candidate. This season, other than being undefeated, has been a huge step in the right direction for Newton who has been as strong a passer as ever in his five year career.
Earlier in the year, the stats didn’t show Newton’s improvement but after multiple strong statistical and physically astounding showings, the Panthers quarterback has the numbers to prove it. He has thrown for five touchdowns twice in two weeks and as last week showed, he can do it when his team his trailing and keep them in it and bring them back.
This week against Atlanta, he’ll deal with a revamped defense thanks to new Falcons Head Coach Dan Quinn who has breathed new life into his group. They rank in the middle of the pack in most defensive categories and have solid players like Desmond Trufant and Vic Beasley. One area that still hasn’t improved though is the pass rush where the team has just 13 total sacks on the year.
If Newton gets time in the pocket to orchestrate his offense, as he has become accustomed to this year, he can make life extremely difficult for this Atlanta defense.
This Sunday’s matchup will feature arguably the two most bitter of rivals in the NFC South as there is certainly no love lost between these two teams and certainly not the fanbase of each.
The Panthers have already locked up the division after Atlanta lost last week and thus have secured a playoff spot but there is still the matter of a first round bye and the prized homefield advantage and not to mention the potential for an undefeated season in the back of the players and coaches minds.
On the flip side, Atlanta is fighting to stay in playoff contention after falling flat on their faces and sitting at .500 after starting 5-0. Division matchups always make things more interesting with inter-division pride constantly on the line and the chance to knock off an undefeated team, and within the division no less, has to have the Falcons ready to go.
Carolina must make sure that a similar debacle to last week doesn’t happen again here against another rival and even with a playoff spot already locked up, they won’t be lax as they still have much to play for.