It’s winner takes the NFC South this afternoon in the Georgia Dome when the Atlanta Falcons host the Carolina Panthers on CBS. A win for the Panthers (6-8-1) will cap a four-game winning streak to give Ron Rivera’s team an improbable second straight division title On the other side, Mike Smith’s Falcons can punch their ticket to the playoffs by sweeping the reigning division champs.
Atlanta upended Carolina 19-17 back in Week 11 on a 44-yard Matt Bryant field goal with a little more than two minutes to play. At the time, both teams seemed well out of the playoff picture with the Falcons sitting at 4-6 and the Panthers at 3-7-1. However, no team in the NFC South was able to distinguish itself this season, leading to a four-pack of teams with losing records. Regardless of their win-loss record not only will Carolina or Atlanta get into the postseason, whichever team wins also will host a Wild Card game next weekend.
Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
Kickoff: 4:25p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Atlanta -4
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Carolina’s Key to Victory: Don’t Let Julio Jones Beat You
The Panthers won the NFC South last season, finishing with the conference’s second-best record at 12-4. Carolina’s strength was its defense, which ranked behind only eventual Super Bowl champion Seattle in the NFL in both total and scoring defense. This season, the defense has not enjoyed the same success, which is one of the reasons behind Carolina’s decline in the win column. The Panthers are a respectable 10th in total defense, but 22nd in scoring, giving up 24.7 points per game. They have tightened things up during their three-game winning streak, surrendering a total of 40 points in victories over the Saints, Buccaneers and Browns. Atlanta has averaged 29 points per game over its past four and one of the keys has been wide receiver Julio Jones. The league leader in receiving yards per game (109.6), Jones has been near uncoverable recently, posting 555 yards receiving in his last three outings. Included in this stretch was a franchise-record 259 yards against Green Bay and then 107 in last week’s big win in New Orleans, even though he was questionable entering the game because of an oblique injury. Jones isn’t the only target Matt Ryan has to throw to (Roddy White, Harry Douglas, Levine Toilolo), but he is the key when it comes to stopping the Falcons’ offense. Outside of the Green Bay game, Jones has averaged just 75 yards receiving per game in the seven losses he’s been a part of (missed the Pittsburgh game because of injury). Carolina’s defense appears to be peaking at the right time, but it needs to put together one more strong effort on the road to seal the deal. Focusing its efforts on keeping Jones in check is not only a good first step in that direction, it also could be the difference back-to-back division titles or a tough finish to a disappointing season.
[inline_team_schedule team-id=27 date=20141106 sport=nfl upcoming=1 limit=8][/inline_team_schedule]
Atlanta’s Key to Victory: Win the Turnover Battle
The Falcons are known more for being an offensive team, and the statistics certainly back that up, but it doesn’t mean their defense can’t have an impact. Atlanta is ranked last in the NFL in both total and passing defense, but this unit has done a good job creating turnovers. The Falcons are fourth in the league in takeaways with 28, 19 of these coming in their six wins. To put it another way, Atlanta is plus-12 in turnover margin in wins and minus-four in losses. The Falcons used four takeaways, including a fumble returned for a touchdown at the end of the game, to beat the Saints last week. They also created three miscues in a big home win over the Cardinals in Week 13. Carolina is dead even in turnover margin on the season, but Cam Newton threw two interceptions in the Week 11 home loss to Atlanta. If the Falcons can continue to force the other team to make mistakes, it doesn’t matter how many yards the defense gives up. If the turnovers don’t come, however, then it will be up to the offense to not only do its part, but also pick up the slack on the other side of the ball too.
While much has been made of the mediocre NFC South this season, the reality is that whichever team wins this afternoon not only gets into the playoffs, it also will host a Wild Card game next weekend. Carolina is the reigning division champion and appears to be peaking at the right time. Atlanta has a potent offense, but toes a rather thin line on defense. The Panthers have enough difference-makers on both sides of the ball to overcome the Falcons’ home-field advantage and the great Julio Jones. Carolina comes into the Georgia Dome and caps its late-season surge by claiming its second straight division crown.