The Carolina Panthers (12-0) may have gotten a little complacent last week, just edging out a struggling Saints team to keep their perfect season intact. That said, a win is still a win, and last week's narrow victory also enabled Ron Rivera's team to keep its regular season win streak alive. A streak that now stands at 16 in a row dating back to last season. The Panthers will once again try to avoid upset at the hands of yet another struggling division rival, this time at home.
The Atlanta Falcons' (6-6) downward spiral continues after collecting their fifth consecutive loss against Tampa Bay last week. After starting the season a perfect 5-0, the Falcons have now lost six of their last seven games. Dan Quinn has the daunting task of getting his Falcons back into the playoff hunt by scoring their first NFC South win of the season on the road against the undefeated Panthers. If the offense can return to early-season form, the Falcons could make it difficult for the Panthers to avoid an upset two weeks in a row. Ron Rivera and the Panthers will do everything in their power to make sure that does not happen.
This will be the 41st meeting between Atlanta and Carolina all-time dating back to 1995. The Falcons lead the series with a record of 24-16. The NFC South rivals split the series last season with each team winning on the road.
Atlanta at Carolina
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Carolina – 7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Atlanta Jumpstart a Sputtering Offense?
Since starting the season 5-0, the Falcons have literally cut their points per game average in half, going from 32.4 points per game in their first five games to 16.7 in their last seven. Oddly enough, they still rank in the top five in the NFL in total offense. Thus, moving the football has not been the problem.
The glaring issues plaguing this offense have been the inability to score points in the red zone. Matt Ryan has one of the worst QB ratings in the NFL once he gets his team within the opposition's 20-yard line. Further complicating matters, Ryan cannot seem to stop turning the ball over in critical moments.
Ryan also has failed to get the Falcons' biggest playmakers involved in the red zone. Julio Jones has not scored a touchdown since Week 8. Devonta Freeman, who was a scoring machine early on this season, has yet to find pay dirt since Week 6. In fact, the Falcons as a whole have not scored a rushing touchdown since Freeman last scored, in addition to averaging just 74 rushing yards per game over their last four contests.
Atlanta’s woes on offense will be further compounded facing off against one of the stingiest defenses in the NFL, especially when it comes to taking advantage of turnovers. The Panthers already have 29 takeaways on the season, 19 coming by way of interception. By far the most in the NFL. The Carolina defense will also head into this game with a nasty disposition following an uncharacteristically bad performance against the Saints last week. The Falcons may get their offense back on track before season’s end, but it seems highly unlikely that it happens on Sunday.
2. Julio Jones vs. Josh Norman
It is worth taking notice any time two of the game’s best players at their respective positions go head-to-head. That will definitely be the case on Sunday when lockdown cornerback Josh Norman attempts to shadow Julio Jones, Atlanta's elite wide receiver.
It is well documented that Jones is capable of exploding against any defensive back in the NFL. That being said, this matchup bodes particularly well for Norman. He has a very good track record of shutting down, or at least limiting, the best wide receivers the league has to offer, and that includes Jones.
Norman helped limit Jones to a combined 10 receptions for 117 yards in two meetings last season. Jones did not collect more than 59 receiving yards in either game, nor did he score a touchdown. Norman has even more help this time around in the form of ball-hawking free safety, Kurt Coleman. It is also worth noting that Jones may be somewhat limited by a minor knee injury this week. The smart money is always on Jones, but the deck seems to be somewhat stacked against him this time around.
3. The Panthers' Rushing Attack vs. the Falcons' Run Defense
While the Panthers' passing attack has really come to life in recent weeks (at least when Ted Ginn isn’t dropping passes), the run game is still Carolina's bread and butter on offense. The Panthers rank third in the NFL in both rushing yards per game (142) and rushing touchdowns (14). They should find success once again against the Falcons.
Atlanta has been fairly solid against the run for most of the season, giving up just over 100 rushing yards per game. However, this defense has allowed 15 rushing touchdowns on the season, which is the second most in the NFL. In addition, the Falcons have struggled against run-heavy offenses. They have proven particularly vulnerable of late, giving up a combined 357 yards and four touchdowns on the ground in their last two contests against the Vikings and Buccaneers.
The Atlanta Falcons' inability to successfully run the football with consistency is an issue of concern. The bigger problem is that they can’t seem to put points on the scoreboard. You couple that with a tendency to turn the ball over in critical moments, and you have a recipe for losing, which is exactly what the Falcons continue to do on a weekly basis.
To make matters worse, Atlanta’s struggling offense will have to circumvent a stout Carolina defense looking to unleash the frustrations of a poor showing last week on the road. New Orleans nearly spoiled the Panthers' perfect season by recapturing some magic on offense. It is certainly plausible that the Falcons could do the same in this game. The problem is, plausible and likely are two very different things.
The Falcons' defense may be in for the biggest challenge trying to contain Cam Newton, who seems to be able to conjure up touchdown drives at will of late. There is no question that Atlanta will have its hands full against a Panther offense that is averaging close to 40 points per game over the last three contests.
Prediction: Panthers 31, Falcons 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.