When these two NFC South rivals last met just two weeks ago, it did not end well for the Atlanta Falcons (7-7), as they were pounded by the Panthers 38-0 in Charlotte. The Falcons hope that Week 16 will result in a completely different outcome in Atlanta. A win last week over Jacksonville put an end to a six-game losing streak for the Falcons, and it should provide them with some much-needed momentum. Momentum that they did not have heading into the previous matchup against the Panthers. Last week's victory also provided the Falcons with the narrowest of chances to still make the playoffs.
The Carolina Panthers (14-0) have no intentions of helping the Falcons with their playoff aspirations. In fact, Carolina head coach Ron Rivera has already stated that he will not rest his starters for this matchup, and with good reason. A win over Atlanta this week would lock up the top seed in the NFC, securing the Panthers with home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. There also is the small matter of an undefeated season at stake, in addition to a regular season winning streak that currently stands at 18 games dating back to last season.
This will be the 42nd meeting between Atlanta and Carolina all-time dating back to 1995. The Falcons lead the overall series with a record of 24-17. However, the Panthers have dominated the last two games in the series, defeating the Falcons 38-0 in Week 14 and 34-3 in the final regular season game in 2014.
Carolina at Atlanta
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Carolina -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Cam Newton Continue His MVP Run?
Newton has absolutely dominated every team he has faced in recent weeks, including the Atlanta Falcons. Newton led the Panthers' offense to paydirt in each of Carolina’s first three possessions against Atlanta in Week 14. He would go on to complete 15 of his 21 passes for 265 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions, before giving way to backup Derek Anderson in the final quarter of the blowout win.
Newton will look to match or exceed his impressive Week 14 performance against the Falcons. Atlanta ranks just 20th in the NFL in pass defense, and an anemic Falcons pass rush has garnered just 17 sacks all season, the fewest in the league. It is common knowledge that no pass rush equals plenty of time for opposing quarterbacks to pick a secondary apart, even a good secondary, and that is exactly what Newton did to this defense two weeks ago. Unfortunately for the Falcons, there is nothing to suggest that Newton will not do the same again.
2. The Falcons' Offense
It was a promising development for the Atlanta offense that Davonta Freeman and Julio Jones both found the end zone in last week’s win over Jacksonville. Jones had not scored a touchdown since Week 8, and Freeman’s score accounted for the Falcons' first rushing touchdown since Week 6. Unfortunately, this offense is still far removed from the unit that seemed to be able to score at will early on in the season.
The Falcons did not score a single touchdown in the second half of a close game against a mediocre Jaguars defense last week, and Matt Ryan’s touchdown pass to Jones resulted in his only touchdown pass of that game. In fact, Ryan has not thrown more than one touchdown pass in a game since Week 11, and he has turned the ball over more than he has found the end zone since that time. Sure, it is a good sign that Freeman and Jones ended their respective touchdown droughts last week, but the Carolina defense will provide a much bigger challenge this week. After all, Atlanta is just one game removed from being completely shut out by the Panthers.
3. Julio Jones vs. Josh Norman 2.0
Norman’s weekly matchups against the NFL’s top receivers has developed into must-see TV. The trash talking, shutdown cornerback may have even met his match in last week’s spectacle against the equally spirited Odell Beckham Jr. While Beckham took his matchup with Norman a little too far, resulting in a one-game suspension, it can be argued that Beckham got the best of Norman.
It will be interesting to see how Norman responds this week against the mild-mannered Jones in their second matchup of the season. Norman held Jones to a reasonable seven catches for 88 yards in Week 14. Norman also helped limit the elite wide receiver to a combined 10 receptions for 117 receiving yards in two meetings last season, and Jones is still looking for his first touchdown reception against Norman.
Jones is healthier than he was in the previous meeting, and he is also coming off of one of his best games of the season last week, while Norman is coming off of one of his worst performances. Given those circumstances, it will be fun to see who comes out on top in round two.
The last time these two teams met, Carolina was coming off of a game against the Saints in which they gave up 38 points and almost had their undefeated season come to an end. The Panthers responded in a big way by beating the Falcons 38-0 the following week. Fast-forward to the present, and you find a very similar scenario as the Panthers get set for round two against the Falcons. Carolina gave up 35 points to the Giants last week, dodging yet another bullet that threatened its perfect season. The question is, will the Panthers take out those frustrations on the Falcons once again?
It certainly seems plausible, but the Falcons do have more going for them this time around. The game will be played in Atlanta, they have some momentum coming off of a win, and the Atlanta offense finally showed some momentary signs of life last week. That being said, the Panthers still have plenty at stake, and their defense has no intention of getting embarrassed two weeks in a row. This game should be more competitive than the previous meeting. How could it not? Regardless, Carolina has not scored fewer than 30 points in a game since Week 10, averaging closer to 40 points per game since that time. It’s difficult to find any scenario where the Falcons' offense can outscore the visiting Panthers.
Prediction: Panthers 34, Falcons 13
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.