The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers are two franchises deep in rebuilding mode, heading into "Thursday Night Football" this week with a combined record of 4-10. There remains a major difference between them, though. While one team entered the year in that mindset, the other found themselves forced there following a nightmarish start.
Indeed, Atlanta had high hopes for a potential playoff run after winning six of their final eight games to close 2019. But losing their first five games of 2020 led to a change in plans, costing head coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff their jobs. There's been a troubling inability for this team to close out games, even under interim head coach Raheem Morris. Sunday against Detroit, running back Todd Gurley scored a touchdown by accident, putting the Falcons ahead 22-16 but providing enough time to give Detroit one final drive. The Lions made them pay, scoring a last-second touchdown to leave this team shattered at 1-6.
Now four years removed from their devastating Super Bowl defeat against New England, the Falcons have just a 25-30 record since and haven't made the postseason since 2017. Even Pro Bowlers like franchise quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones may be fighting for their futures with the team. Both were heavily rumored in trades before the team shut that down Sunday afternoon.
The Panthers know that type of misery after their own heartbreaking Super Bowl loss to the Denver Broncos in 2015. Like the Falcons, they've been out of the playoffs for three years and fired head coach Ron Rivera after nose-diving to a 5-11 record in 2019.
That leaves them a bit ahead of the game. New quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has showed some promise and performed admirably with Pro Bowl running back Christian McCaffrey sidelined. At 3-4, they've played close games against some tough opponents; every loss has come against a team that's .500 or better.
The Panthers jumped on the Falcons last month, scoring 20 unanswered points in the first half before holding on to win 23-16. Can they keep rolling against Atlanta at home? A win means a return to .500 and puts them on the outside fringe of postseason contention earlier than expected.
Thursday Night Football: Atlanta at Carolina
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 29 at 8:20 p.m. ET
TV: FOX/NFL Network
Spread: Panthers -2.5
Three Things To Watch
1. Will Christian McCaffrey play? What's the game plan if he doesn't?
There's a chance McCaffrey, nursing a high ankle sprain since Week 2, will finally suit up against the Falcons. The Pro Bowl running back produced 223 yards of total offense and four touchdowns in seven quarters before being forced to the sidelines.
"It's a possibility," Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said to reporters about McCaffrey's return. "It's sort of out of my hands, but I'm hopeful that we will have him."
Should Carolina even try and get him ready given the short week? That's debatable. In McCaffrey's absence, the Panthers have focused on their passing attack, jumping to 11th in the league by averaging 263.7 yards per game. Bridgewater is posting 8.2 yards per attempt, tied for sixth in the league, and hasn't been afraid to throw the ball deep to wide receivers Robby Anderson and DJ Moore.
The Falcons should know how dangerous they are; Moore burned the defense for a 57-yard touchdown in Week 5 while Anderson had eight catches for 112 yards. Atlanta's pass defense ranks 31st in the NFL and is allowing 8.46 yards per pass play (dead last). Things haven't gotten any better since the teams' last meeting in Week 5.
That's why McCaffrey may spend one more week resting up. The rushing attack has been serviceable, even though the Panthers have yet to produce a 100-yard rusher with him sidelined. Replacement Mike Davis was plenty good enough against the Falcons, totaling just shy of 150 yards total offense.
But if McCaffrey’s healthy... he's a special type of talent. His presence would add another dimension the Falcons simply don't have the defensive personnel to manage.
2. Can Matt Ryan take advantage of a leaky Panthers defense?
The Falcons might not be able to stop a Panthers offense and a red-hot Bridgewater. But a shootout? That's another matter altogether. It's why Carolina lost to New Orleans 27-24 Sunday after allowing the Saints to score on five of their first six drives. They were 6-for-6 on third-down conversions in the first half while capitalizing on red zone opportunities.
The Panthers have already lost Pro Bowl co-captain Kawann Short to a season-ending shoulder injury. Up to four more starters on defense have shuffled in and out in recent weeks due to injury and COVID-19 protocols. It's left the defense ranked a middling 13th in the league while allowing a whopping 415 yards to the Saints last week.
On paper, you'd think Matt Ryan would be able to tear the defense apart. He's got a tantalizing list of targets, from young Calvin Ridley to veteran Jones and even running back Gurley. He leads the NFL with 2,181 passing yards through seven games.
Yet against Carolina in Week 5, he just couldn't get going, producing a season-low 226 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception. The 35-year-old has also been busy this week reiterating how much he loves Atlanta after those aforementioned trade rumors. Add in Sunday's heartbreaker and he'll need to refocus quickly for Thursday night.
3. Which team will learn how to close?
The Panthers have the look of a young team learning on the job. Bridgewater had an incredible game against the Saints, going 23-for-28 for 254 yards, two touchdowns, and a season-high 128.3 passer rating. But a key sack in crunch time caused an eight-yard loss and forced Rhule to try a longshot, 65-yard field goal to tie the game late in the fourth quarter. The attempt fell short, as did the Panthers' chance at a comeback.
The Falcons know that feeling far too well. Three times this season, the Falcons have blown a game where their ESPN win probability reached 98 percent. The other 31 NFL teams combined have done that a total of four times.
Last week's loss was the most frustrating considering Gurley was told not to score. Kneeling at the one-yard line would have set up a chip shot field goal and given Morris, the interim coach, two straight wins and momentum. Instead? Gurley faceplanted at the edge of the end zone, and the Falcons give the impression of a team in freefall and in position to sell heavily at the trade deadline.
Bridgewater is leading the Panthers back to respectability much quicker than initially expected. The Falcons are plummeting into the NFC South basement... and that was quite unexpected.
Unfortunately for them, there's nothing here likely to change the narrative and not enough time to recover from Sunday's emotional knockout. If McCaffrey somehow suits up and plays, this game could get ugly.
Prediction: Panthers 34, Falcons 20
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.