Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons (-4, 47.5 o/u)
The NFC South has had a bad year. But, thanks to the current NFL playoff format, one of the four sub-.500 teams in the division is going to earn a playoff berth; and, once you make the postseason, it doesn’t matter what happened during the first 17 weeks.
Coming into the final week, Carolina (6-8-1) and Atlanta (6-9) are first and second in the division, respectively. The winner of Sunday’s game at the Georgia Dome will host a playoff game next week and be three wins away from the Super Bowl.
In week 11, the Falcons beat Carolina in Charlotte (19-17). Atlanta led the game 16-3 after three quarters, but needed a 44-yard field goal in the dying minutes to earn the victory. Panther quarterback Cam Newton completed 23 of 37 pass attempts for 292 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the game, but neither team was able to run the ball particularly well. The win snapped a three-game losing streak for the Falcons in the head-to-head series.
After an impressive 12-win campaign last year, the Panthers looked like they were on their way to another good season this season, posting wins over Tampa Bay and Detroit in weeks 1 and 2. Carolina won just once in the next 11 weeks, though; only a week 5 win over Chicago was better than their bye week.
Carolina got themselves back in the playoff race by winning its last three. The Panthers destroyed New Orleans (41-10) in week 14, edged the Bucs (19-17) in week 15, and got by Cleveland (17-13) last week. The turnaround has been keyed by the ground game; running backs Jonathan Stewart and D’Angelo Williams both missed a ton of time this season due to injuries. But Stewart is now healthy and has gained 352 yards on the ground (on just 66 carries) during the winning streak.
After throwing for five touchdowns and eight interceptions during a five-game losing streak, Newton has also improved lately. He missed the game against Tampa due to a car accident, but was able to go in the last week. In his last two games, Newton has thrown for four touchdowns and just one pick.
Carolina is 6-8-1 overall, 7-8 against the spread, and 3-4 against the number on the road.
There was some thought that Atlanta coach Mike Smith might be fired after the Falcons blew a 21-0 lead and dropped to 2-6 after a week 8 loss to Detroit in London. Instead of losing his job, Smith used the bye week to help an ailing offensive line get healthy, and the Falcons won three of their next four.
After losses to Green Bay on the road and Pittsburgh at home, the Falcons won convincingly in New Orleans, 30-14, last week, eliminating the Saints, and earning a spot in this de facto title game.
Over the last month, quarterback Matt Ryan has completed 70% of his passes while tossing nine touchdowns versus three picks. Wide receiver Julio Jones is playing arguably the best football of his career and, when healthy, has been nearly impossible to contain. Despite missing the Falcons’ week 15 game against Pittsburgh, Jones is second in the league in receiving yards with 1,535.
Atlanta is 6-9 overall, 7-8 against the spread, and 4-3 ATS at home.
(Photo credit: Georgia National Guard (Flickr: Playoff Pass) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo has been cropped.)