By Sam McPherson
Despite a Week 15 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars that broke a six-game losing streak, the Atlanta Falcons are in a desperate position. They not only need to win their final two games, but the Falcons also need help from other teams in the league if they want to qualify for the 2015 postseason. With the undefeated Carolina Panthers coming to town this weekend, the odds don’t look good for Atlanta.
Just two weeks ago in Charlotte, the Falcons were manhandled by the Panthers 38-0, getting out-gained by almost 200 yards while turning the ball over four times. Carolina is flirting with history and perfection, and the Panthers need just one more win to clinch home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs. The Falcons are going to get the best Carolina has to offer on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
As noted, the Panthers are 14-0 this year, the last remaining unbeaten team in the NFL. Going back to last season, Carolina has won 18 straight regular-season games and 19 of 20 overall. The Panthers’ only loss since November 2014 came in the NFC playoffs on the road at Seattle in the divisional round. Carolina has one win in overtime (against Indianapolis) and four other wins by a touchdown or less. The Panthers also have seven wins by double digits in 2015.
Panthers on Offense
Carolina leads the NFL in scoring at 32.1 points per game, and everything starts on offense with quarterback Cam Newton. He has 33 touchdown passes this season as well seven rushing scores. Newton has tossed just 10 interceptions this year, adding to his case for the presumptive NFL MVP winner at this point. In the absence of his best receiving threat this season out due to injury, Newton has responded with his best season as a pro (98.7 QB rating).
Running back Jonathan Stewart is a bulldozer, with 989 rushing yards this year. He has a foot injury, however, and may not play against Atlanta. Newton is second on the team with 580 yards on the ground. On the receiving end, the two primary targets are tight end Greg Olsen (71 catches for 1,048 yards and seven TDs) and wide receiver Ted Ginn (43 catches, 730 yards, 10 TDs). However, nine players on the Panthers have at least 10 receptions this year, so Newton can spread the ball around as needed.
Panthers on Defense
If Newton is the league’s MVP, then the Defensive Player of the Year could go to either linebacker Luke Kuechly (101 tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles) or cornerback Josh Norman (four INTs, three forced fumbles and two TD returns). Both are having outstanding seasons and are providing Newton with all the defensive support he needs. Carolina is 10th in points allowed (19.9 points per game), which is impressive considering how many teams have had to play catch-up against the Panthers.
Linebacker Thomas Davis also is having a stellar season with 97 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Safety Kurt Coleman has seven INTs to lead the defense, and defensive tackle Kawaan Short leads the squad with nine sacks. The defense basically comes at you from everywhere, much like Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera used to do as a member of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense. The influence of that team has trickled down to this squad, through Rivera.
Panthers Players to Watch
Newton clearly needs to be contained for the Falcons to beat the Panthers. Good luck with that. He has the legs to run at will, and he has the arm to throw anywhere on the field. For all the talk a few years ago about Colin Kaepernick being the future of the QB position in the NFL, Newton is the present and the future. It takes a unique defense to stop him, and the Atlanta defense probably isn’t up to that task
Defensively, Norman will lock on to the Falcons’ best WR (Julio Jones), and that will force QB Matt Ryan to look elsewhere—which feeds right into the hands of all those other Carolina defenders. If Jones can’t get open, the Falcons offense will have to rely a lot on RB Devonta Freeman to carry the load. He will be taking on Kuechly and Davis by himself, basically.
Even if Atlanta wins its last two games, there’s a three-percent chance the Falcons will make the playoffs based on other game outcomes. At this point, it’s really just about pride for Atlanta. The Falcons got embarrassed in Carolina two weeks ago, and surely Atlanta has to play better than that at home. However, even if the Panthers have an off day, they have way too much talent and motivation to lose this game. Look for Carolina to win by two TDs and officially eliminate the Falcons from the playoff hunt.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.