Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) reacts with fans after the game. The Panthers defeated the Saints 17-13 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina Panthers Look to Lock up a #2 NFC Playoff Seed Today in Atlanta

The Carolina Panthers had the 1-3 start, prompting fans to start in anew with their cries for Ron Rivera’s job. Rivera and the Panthers responded with an eight game winning streak and won ten of their last eleven. Their only stumble during that time was a loss at the Louisiana Superdome.

Like the Auburn Tigers in the BCS National Championship picture, whose lone loss was at LSU where the Bayou Bengals are 79-1 in their last 80 home games, losing at the Superdome to the Saints isn’t a “bad” loss. They hit a team that plays extremely tough defending their house.

The Atlanta Falcons were a very similar team up until this year. When they were on the “rise” with “Matty Ice” and a healthy WR corps, they rarely lost in the Georgia Dome.

Not so this season. They’re 3-4 at home, 1-7 on the road, and their 4-11 season thus far is the exact mirror image of the Panthers and their 11-4 mark.

Carolina enters the game without Steve Smith and Jonathan Stewart. The Panthers haven’t seen much out of Stewart this season due to injuries and I wonder about his future with the team, but Steve Smith’s absence is what matters more. I think the team might miss his competitive fire more than his production, however. Smith often “Trash talks” his opponents into committing fouls, giving the Panther offense a free 15 yards here and there, and that adds up and has ripple effects on both teams involved.

If you’ll recall the St. Louis game, the Rams’ players got really “on tilt” and out of their game. DE Chris Long was ejected, it was so bad. In the second half of that game, it seemed like the Rams wanted to fight after nearly every play.

No Smitty means the Falcons’ defense won’t have his mouth to worry about, first and foremost. It’ll allow them to concentrate more on their task, and that means the Carolina offense will have to really put in some work to score against a seemingly resurgent Falcons team. The Falcons have youth at the corner position, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see, say, Ted Ginn putting a double-move on a rookie corner to Matty ice the game late, if all falls into place.

Atlanta played well at San Francisco last week and had a chance to win the game in the waning moments. They were down only a field goal with Matt Ryan driving the team when a tipped pass wobbled and hung in the air right in front of ILB Navorro Bowman, who simply picked the ball out of the air and had an open return lane for a defensive TD to “Matty ice” the game for the Nineres.

If not for that one play, the Falcons might well have won the game.

On the flip side, the Panthers aren’t going into Atlanta sitting on their laurels, knowing they have a playoff berth. They’re playing for the difference in a 5th overall seed and a second seed that could possibly turn into the #1 overall seed if a couple of other ball games fall into place.

They aren’t concerned with that. They just know that they want to play the playoff games at home if at all possible, and that means they have to win this game today. They won’t be “looking by” the Falcons…in fact, they’ll be gunning for them.

Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) looks to pass in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

An Ace in the Hole

The Atlanta Falcons have YET to solve Cam Newton. The Falcons are historically a team that Cam does extreme damage to, fumble or no fumble, and there’s no Haruki Nakamura to give up long passes over the middle to and no Julio Jones to catch them. Roddy White is one of the top “possession” WRs in the NFL and Harry Douglas can be explosive in fits and starts, and there’s always Tony Gonzales to worry over.

The Panthers pass defense needs to have a solid game plan and execution against this offense that is still dangerous. Steven Jackson is a power back that can do it all – block, run, and catch the ball – so Carolina Panthers’ Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott is going to have his hands full.

On the plus side, Panther linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are as good a pair of linebackers on any given team as there is in the NFL, and that includes the Niners’ Bowman and Patrick Willis. The Panthers’ pair has more speed for one thing and Thomas Davis’ “trick knee” has held up extremely well over the past two seasons.

He was a bit slower last year, but now that the knee has had time to heal and the supporting muscles time to re-grow to NFL strength, his speed has returned and he has really been a force on the field. Both Kuechly and Davis can cover one-on-one, which gives McDermott a lot of space in his playbook to call what he wants to call. I’m sure we’ll see some “A” gap and overload blitzes and perhaps even a delayed safety blitz or two just to keep things interesting for Matt Ryan and give the Falcons’ offensive coaches and players a lot to think and worry about.

Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis (58) celebrates with defensive end Charles Johnson (95) after intercepting a pass during the second quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

As for the statistics, here’s how they compare:

Total offense:

Panthers: 23 ppg (19)
Falcons: 22.6 ppg (22)

Rushing offense:

Panthers: 126.1 ypg (11)
Falcons: 78.1 ypg (32)

Passing offense:

Panthers: 192.9 ypg (28)
Falcons: 267.5 ypg (5)

Total Defense:

Panthers: 14.7 ppg (1)
Falcons: 28.1 ppg (29)

Rushing defense:

Panthers: 87.7 ypg (2)
Falcons: 135.9 ypg (31)

Passing defense:

Panthers: 213.2 ypg (7)
Falcons: 249.9 ypg (25)

As you can see, the Carolina Panthers defense is top-ten in every meaningful category and #1 in the entire NFL in points allowed. Points allowed is really the ONLY defensive stat that REALLY matters, just as scoring offense is the only offensive stat that does. However, when you break down into rushing and passing, you have to use yards, not points, as your measuring stick. The Panthers hold up well there where the Falcons are quite mediocre. There are reasons for this – mostly due to offseason moves and moves NOT made as well as some key injuries – but it is what it is.

Dec 23, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (84) catches the ball between San Francisco 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock (26) and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (53) during the fourth quarter of the final regular season game at Candlestick Park. The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Atlanta Falcons 34-24. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

It does illustrate that the Falcons’ passing game is certainly anything but DOA – it is lethal. Gonzo, White, and Douglas are a pretty potent trio even without Julio Jones, and the Panthers’ back four is going to have their work cut out for them. So will the front-four, in a race to get to the QB.

What I like about the Panthers D in this matchup is the speed of Thomas Davis covering Steven Jackson. Davis is a faster man and matches up with Jackson’s size very, very favorably. This means that “Matty Ice” can’t simply dump off the ball to Jackson to avoid the pass rush and let him gain an “easy” 5+ yards. Davis is going to challenge him from the spot he makes the catch enough that any dump-off/hot receiver play could well result in the equivalent of an incomplete pass as Davis closes the gap quickly on Jackson and can physically handle the man to the ground…or at least stand him up so that help has time to arrive.

Therefore, I see Ryan using Gonzo as his “blankie” more than Jackson. Either Kuechly or Davis will be covering him man-on-man, which means there may be plays designed that way so that Davis is tied up covering Gonzo while Jackson makes a catch on a swing or flare pass…but that just means Kuechly is free to pursue him.

That’s not much of a winning combo for the Falcons either, so I think the damage done in the passing game is going to have to come from intermediate to long routes. Roddy White and Gonzo over the middle perhaps or Douglas challenging deep, but that’s assuming the Falcons’ patchwork O-line can handle the Panthers’ fierce pass rush.

All in all, the match-ups look generally favorable for the Carolina Panthers.

Predicted Final Score:

Carolina Panthers 31, Atlanta Falcons 17

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