Sunday’s NFC South clash between the Carolina Panthers (11-4) and Atlanta Falcons (9-6) looms as large as any game on the Week 17 schedule. That’s because this matchup between division rivals could play a significant role in shaping the final NFC playoff picture.
It may even be a matter of survival for the Falcons, as they host the Panthers for the first time inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Atlanta was officially eliminated from the hotly-contested NFC South title race with last week’s 23-13 road loss to the Saints. However, the Falcons still control their own playoff destiny.
A win over Carolina will guarantee Atlanta a spot in the postseason. And even with a loss, the Falcons can still clinch the final NFC Wild Card spot if the Seahawks lose to the Cardinals. The bad news is that the defending NFC champs are still in danger of being knocked out of the playoffs entirely with a loss to the Panthers and a Seahawks’ victory on Sunday.
The Panthers, who have now won seven of their last eight contests, are already locked into the playoffs as the No. 5 seed. But there is still plenty of incentive for them to give maximum effort against the Falcons on Sunday. Carolina can win the NFC South title with a victory against Atlanta coupled with a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay. If that were to happen, the Panthers could potentially vault all the way up to a No. 2 seed and garner a first-round bye. But that scenario would also require the Vikings and Rams to lose on Sunday. However unlikely that may seem, head coach Ron Rivera has already made it clear that he has no intention of resting his starters for what should be a hard-fought matchup between division foes.
Carolina at Atlanta
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 31 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Atlanta -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Carolina ground attack
The key to the Panthers' 20-17 win over the Falcons in Week 9 was their potent rushing attack. Carolina racked up 201 yards and two touchdowns on the ground in that matchup. Quarterback Cam Newton (above, right) led the way with 86 yards and a touchdown. Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey had a stellar outing as well, running for a season-high 66 yards and a score. The versatile McCaffrey also tacked on an additional 28 receiving yards.
Atlanta’s eighth-ranked run defense (allowing 105.2 ypg) will be charged with making sure that doesn’t happen again on Sunday. But that is a tall order indeed, and the Falcons will surely have their hands full against the fourth-best rushing offense (134.3 ypg) in the NFL. Carolina can (and will) come at the Atlanta defense in a wide variety of ways with its three-pronged ground attack. In addition to slowing down Newton and McCaffrey, the Falcons must contend with the between-the-tackles work of Jonathan Stewart as well. Stewart will be in search of redemption after fumbling twice in the first meeting.
2. Matt Ryan vs. Carolina defense
The reigning NFL MVP hasn’t been able to match last year’s success. Regardless, there is reason to believe that Ryan will come up big on Sunday. The last time Ryan faced the Panthers in Atlanta, he lit them up for a career-best 503 passing yards and four touchdowns. Of course, that was last year, and that doesn’t count for much in the midst of a lackluster 2017 campaign. However, it is significant that Ryan threw for 313 yards and two scores against the Panthers in Week 9. It is Ryan's only 300-yard game this season and also his only one with multiple TD passes. He should be able to find similar success against the a Panthers pass defense (223.6 ypg) that's middle of the pack (16th) among its peers.
Ryan will probably find plenty of open passing lanes against the Panthers' suspect secondary. But a potent Carolina front seven does present its share of challenges. Most notably, Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is a force to be reckoned with on his own and leads all Panther defenders with three interceptions. Joining Kuechly is a formidable trio of pass rushers - Julius Peppers (11 sacks), Mario Addison (10.5) and Kawann Short (7.5) - that have accounted for 29 of Carolina’s 39 sacks this season (third in the NFL). Additionally, linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson will return from suspension this week to further bolster the Panthers’ efforts in slowing down Ryan and the Falcons' offense.
3. Julio Jones vs. James Bradberry
Jones’ (right) success, or lack thereof, on Sunday will go a long way in determining the Falcons’ success. Like Ryan, Jones enjoyed a career best outing the last time he faced the Panthers in Atlanta (12 receptions for 300 yards and a touchdown). He also posted solid numbers against Carolina in Week 9 (six catches for 118 yards). And if not for a rare drop as he streaked unchallenged to the end zone, Jones would have had an additional 39 yards and a touchdown in that contest.
While Panthers’ second-year cornerback James Bradberry had little to do with Jones’ monster performance last season, he was largely responsible for his success in Week 9. In what will be the most critical matchup of the game, Bradberry will likely be charged with shadowing Jones once again on Sunday. And that bodes extremely well for the Falcons’ passing attack.
Bradberry has struggled mightily at times against elite wide receivers this season. Just last week, he surrendered 106 yards and was flagged twice for pass interference against Tampa Bay's Mike Evans. And according to Pro Football Focus, Bradberry grades out as the 105th-ranked cornerback in the NFL this season. Jones is dealing with nagging ankle and thumb injuries, which may help Bradberry’s cause. But those injuries didn’t seem to effect Jones last week, as he torched Saints’ Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore for 149 yards on seven grabs. Bradberry may step up to the challenge, but on paper, this appears to be a huge mismatch.
Under normal circumstances, a slightly superior Carolina team probably wins this game. But these are not ordinary circumstances. And unlike the Falcons, the Panthers are already firmly locked into the playoffs. Carolina has an outside shot at improving its playoff seeding and potentially winning a division title, but still need plenty of outside help to even make that possible.
The Panthers will play to win on Sunday, but it won’t be with the same sense of desperation as the Falcons, who must win to guarantee their place in the postseason. Atlanta has home-field advantage and an edge in the passing game to help its cause as well. That should be enough to propel the Falcons into the final playoff spot with a narrow victory.
Prediction: Falcons 23, Panthers 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.