I famously uttered the phrase “the playoff dream may be over” after Sunday’s loss to the Arizona Cardinals, and that sentiment seems to be ringing true around Atlanta this week. However, I did include the word “may” in that utterance, and if there is any shred of potential to finish the season strong, it begins with a road tilt in Charlotte on Sunday. Let’s take a look.
Opponent - Carolina Panthers (4-3, 2-1 at home)
Time/TV - 1:00 PM ET, FOX (Regional)
Falcons Offense vs. Panthers Defense
The Falcons continue to be decimated by injuries on offense, and even with Steven Jackson back in the lineup last Sunday, things didn’t work out swimmingly. Roddy White sat out practice (again) on Thursday, and his status is very much in doubt for Sunday, leaving Harry Douglas and Drew Davis on an island against what is a decent Panthers secondary. Tony Gonzalez could emerge here, but he’s faced double (and triple) teams since White and Julio Jones left the lineup, and there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight there.
On the ground, it is certainly possible that we could see a “better” Steven Jackson in game number two since his return, but this is a tall order. Carolina is 2nd in the entire NFL is rushing defense (allowing less than 80 yards per game) and with the Falcons sitting at dead last in the league in rushing (64 yards per game), it isn’t simply a problem with running backs. The offensive line has struggled mightily, even more so in the running game, and short of a return to full-on animal mode from the early-career Steven Jackson, it’s going to be a long day.
In the end, Matt Ryan also has to be better in this spot. I’ve famously defended Ryan (and with good reason) for his play despite horrible circumstances this season, but he was ghastly at times against Arizona. Carolina’s pass defense is pretty good (10th in the NFL in yards allowed), but White could appear in this game, and I can’t see a repeat of last week’s below-average effort.
Falcons Defense vs. Panthers Offense
For once, this side of the ball is probably more encouraging than the offensive side. Cam Newton captains the 29th-ranked passing team in the league, and Carolina has exactly one target (Steve Smith) that anyone fears through the air. The Falcons have allowed nearly 250 yards per game through the air (read: not good), but if there was ever an “easy” team to gameplan for in the passing game, this is it.
The ground game is much, much more worrisome, however, as the Panthers deploy multiple looks. Newton is obviously a monster when he tucks and runs, and I’ve always been a Deangelo Williams fan, even when they use him improperly. The sum of the parts adds up to 130 yards per game on the ground, and that’s very good in today’s NFL. Keep an eye on Mike Tolbert around the goal line, but for me, the key to stopping this offense is to make Cam Newton beat you through the air.
This is a rough one to project. Every pundit is seemingly burying the Falcons under the Georgia Dome, but I can’t jump off the bandwagon (in full) just yet. Carolina is probably the better team (wow, that’s difficult to say), but this is an eminently winnable game for Atlanta. I unequivocally promise to stop mentioning the playoff race if the Falcons lose this game, but the dream is alive, even if it rests completely on life support.
Stay tuned for a game thread on Sunday (posted in the morning), and be sure to join us in the comments throughout the day!