Heading into Week 6 of the season, both the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons were undefeated. The Falcons were entering a very easy stretch of their schedule, while Carolina was entering its toughest run. The prevailing opinion was that, when these two met in Weeks 14 and 16, it would decide who emerged on top in the suddenly respectable NFC South.
Boy were we wrong!
Carolina could clinch the division before this game is even played: all they need is a win or a Falcons loss in Week 13.
The Panthers went out and backed up their hot start with even more dominant play in the second half of the season. They remain the NFL’s only unbeaten team, and have won their last three games by an average of over 21 points. Despite being so close to clinching the division (not to mention top seed in the NFC), Carolina continues to be motivated by perceived disrespect. The latest form coming in an article by ESPN that ranked the Panthers as the “worst 11-0 team ever.”
I think that phrase about not poking the bear extends to large jungle cats as well.
As for Atlanta, they fell from the undefeated ranks, and they fell hard. Now the Falcons perhaps rank as the least-feared team in the NFC. (Even the Romo-less Cowboys don’t make as many bone-headed mistakes as these guys do!)
By virtue of their fast start, Atlanta enters December very much alive in the playoff race. But they can’t afford any more setbacks against subpar teams like the Saints and, realistically, they’ll have to knock off the Panthers in at least one of their final two meetings to stand any chance at playing on Wild Card Weekend.
The big reason the Falcons are struggling? Turnovers, 19 in their last seven games to be exact. It starts at the quarterback position, where Matt Ryan has thrown 12 interceptions and lost three fumbles. But that only tells you half of the story, the where and when of these Ryan turnovers is truly the back-breaking part. Not only has he thrown a pair of red-zone interceptions the last two weeks, but against Indianapolis, he threw a pick-six in the fourth quarter. From his own one-yard line. On first down!
Dann Quinn came into the Falcons organization to fix the defense and he’s done well in that regard. But now the offense is letting him down and, with the team’s biggest (and sometimes only) weapon being Julio Jones, Quinn needs to rely on Ryan to get him the ball.
Of course, in this game, Jones will be going up against cornerback Josh Norman in what should be a fascinating matchup. With Ryan’s top target in a dogfight all afternoon, the Falcons are likely to have trouble getting anything going in Carolina.
Depending on how Atlanta looks this weekend, the spread on this game could go as double-digits. And while you might worry about such a big spread when a team’s “back is against the wall,” the Falcons have done nothing to inspire confidence since September. This is a bad matchup for them on paper, but should be a great matchup for bettors.
Straight-up pick: Panthers.
(Photo Credit: Keith Allison (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)