The Atlanta Falcons can clinch a playoff berth with a win Sunday, but they won’t face a pushover opponent because the Carolina Panthers need a road win to retain their hopes of an NFC South title. The Falcons need a win or a Seattle loss to claim the final playoff spot in the NFC.
Atlanta was knocked out of contention for the division title with a 23-13 loss at New Orleans last week, while Carolina kept alive its hopes of a division crown when Cam Newton’s rushing touchdown with 35 seconds left lifted the Panthers to a 22-19 win over Tampa Bay. The Panthers could still end up seeded anywhere from second to fifth in the NFC playoffs, though they need a win and some help from multiple other teams to improve upon the No. 5 seed they’re in line for with a loss or a New Orleans victory at Tampa Bay. Regardless, Carolina plans to play its starters and play to win, perhaps while keeping one eye on the scoreboard in case the result becomes irrelevant. The Panthers, who have won seven of their last eight, snapped a three-game losing streak against the Falcons with a 20-17 home win in Week 9.
TV: 4:25 p.m. ET, FOX. LINE: Atlanta -4. O/U: 45.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (11-4): Carolina continues to get the job done in the trenches, ranking fourth in rushing offense and sixth in run defense. The guys who power that ground game – Newton and running backs Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey – will be among the first relegated to the bench if the Saints open a big lead against the Buccaneers. The defense that was dominant early in the season has given up bigger chunks of yardage of late but also has forced 10 turnovers in the past three games.
ABOUT THE FALCONS (9-6): Atlanta has crept into the top 10 in the league in total offense after a slow start, but the Falcons managed only 331 total yards in last week’s loss at New Orleans. Matt Ryan is likely to surpass 4,000 passing yards for the seventh straight season, but his numbers represent a big dropoff from a year ago, and star receiver Julio Jones is battling ankle and thumb injuries. The defense has been excellent against the run most of the season but especially of late, holding three straight opponents and four of the last five under 100 rushing yards.
1. Ryan has averaged 349.8 passing yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions in his past four games against the Panthers.
2. Carolina DEs Julius Peppers (11) and Mario Addison (10.5) are the only pair of NFC teammates with double-digit sacks.
3. Atlanta LB Deion Jones is the only player in the league with at least 125 tackles (128) and three interceptions (3).
PREDICTION: Falcons 20, Panthers 17