Before the season began it appeared the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons were on opposite trajectories.
With Matt Ryan under center and Julio Jones poised to become one of the league’s elite receivers, Atlanta was supposed to set the league on fire and make another run to the NFC title game. Carolina’s Cam Newton and head coach Ron Rivera were both under fire, and 2013 was seen as the final year before serious changes came down.
Riding a three-game winning streak, the Panthers are now 4-3 and vying for a wild card spot entering the second half of the season. While injuries to Jones, fellow receiver Roddy White, and running back Steven Jackson have limited the Falcons offense, and one of the NFL’s oldest defenses is ranked 21st against the pass and rush.
The 2-5 Falcons will try to turn the season around and win their first road game against Carolina on Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
Atlanta’s lost each game by an average of 6.6 points, with all of the pressure placed on Ryan to win games with his arm thanks to a last ranked rushing attack. Last week against Arizona, the sixth-year passer looked ready to drag the Falcons out of 27-6 hole in the fourth quarter after completing a four-yard touchdown pass to receiver Drew Davis, but threw an interception on the next possession and Atlanta eventually fell 27-13.
Jones and White went down after the two-point loss tot he New York Jets in Week Five, and Davis along with Harry Douglas have responded well to their increase in playing time. Douglas has now posted two straight 100-yard games, including a 12-catch 121-yard game in the Arizona loss, and second-year Davis tallied five receptions for 77 yards and the score.
Jackson returned and gained six yards on 11 carries, and his main sub Jacquizz Rodgers managed eight yards. Rodgers has been far more effective catching passes out of the backfield, totaling 27 receptions for 166 yards and two touchdowns compared to 3.2 yards a carry.
Newton and the Panthers offense have found their groove over the last five games, going 4-1 in that stretch and averaging 28 points and 345.6 total offensive yards.
During the streak, Newton’s thrown six touchdowns with no interceptions, and rushed for another 106 yards and two touchdowns. Running backs D’Angelo Williams and Mike Tolbert have also split carries and helped the Panthers post the NFL’s eighth best rushing.
In terms of injuries, White remains questionable with hamstring and ankle snags, and could miss his fourth straight game, though he was a limited participant in Friday’s practice session. Team sack leader Osi Umenyiora is also questionable due to a bad knee, and second-string linebacker Stephen Nicholas has been ruled out with a thigh injury.
Carolina’s only concern comes on the defensive end with starting weakside linebacker Chase Blackburn listed as questionable with a foot injury. Should he sit out, defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, along with top linebacker Luke Kuechly, could be asked to shoulder more of the Panthers second ranked rush defense.
Betting Odds: Carolina is favored by 7.5 points
Over/Under: 45 points
Where To Watch Online: NFL Sunday Ticket
TV Channel: FOX
Time: 1 p.m. Eastern Time
Prediction: Carolina 30, Atlanta 20