The Atlanta Falcons (3-0) host the Carolina Panthers (1-2) this Sunday in a pivotal NFC South match-up. This will be Atlanta’s first divisional game as well as the first opponent versus an NFC team.
For Carolina, the game against Atlanta will mark the third match-up against a divisional foe. The Panthers opened the season with a loss to the Buccaneers in Tampa, and then hosted the New Orleans Saints in a Week 2 victory.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense presents a huge a huge challenge for the Panthers defense. Ryan is off to a scorching start, passing for eight touchdowns and just one interception. His completion percentage is at 72.0, and he’s the league’s top ranked passer with a rating of 114.0.
In fact, Atlanta’s offense provides a tall order for any defense. There is just no way to cover Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez. If you roll coverage to one receiver, the other will eat you up. In Week 1, Jones was the beneficiary. Week 2 saw Jones receive double coverage, so it was White’s time to thrive. Last week, Gonzalez did most of the damage.
The Falcons running game showed signs of life last week after looking anemic the first two weeks. The San Diego Chargers boasted the league’s top rushing defense last week (holding opponents to just 41.5 yards per game), but Atlanta was able to rush for 119 yards, with Michael Turner accounting for 80. A balanced attack led by a quarterback who distributes the ball evenly is a nightmare to prepare for.
Atlanta faces a non-traditional quarterback for the first time this season. The previous quarterbacks the Falcons have faced – Matt Cassel, Peyton Manning, and Philip Rivers – are all typical pocket passers. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton uses his legs as much as his arm to gain yardage. Newton’s a quarterback who does most of his damage when he’s outside the pocket, whether it’s to make a throw on the run or an option play.
Last season, Newton went 0-2 versus the Falcons. Atlanta also forced a combined five interceptions in both meetings. Now, the Falcons’ defense is ranked number one in takeaways, led by the improved play of playmaking safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. Newton has already thrown five interceptions (to just two touchdowns) on the season, with three of those interceptions coming in last Thursday night’s 36-7 blowout loss against the New York Giants.
Newton has been under heavy scrutiny for how he handled himself throughout the loss. He scored the Panthers only touchdown on a one-yard run late in the third quarter and did his Superman celebration despite being down big. Not only that, Newton was pouting and sulking on the sidelines – actions that drew criticism from teammate Steve Smith.
Since the new regime in Atlanta began in 2008, the Falcons have posted a 6-2 record (4-0 home, 2-2 away) versus Carolina. Ryan has tossed 12 touchdowns to just four interceptions in the eight meetings. The Falcons have swept the series the last two seasons.
I predict Atlanta improves to 4-0 – their best start to the season since 2004 (also the last time the Falcons won a playoff game). The Falcons hold a 10-game all-time series lead over the Panthers (22-12).
Points Scored: 31.3 (3rd)
Total Offense: 345.0 (19th)
Passing Offense: 255.0 (15th)
Rushing Offense: 90.0 (25th)
Points Allowed: 16.0 (4th)
Total Defense: 336.3 (13th)
Passing Defense: 207.7 (7th)
Rushing Defense: 128.7 (24th)
Points Scored: 17.3 (30th)
Total Offense: 363.7 (19th)
Passing Offense: 267.3 (11th)
Rushing Offense: 96.3 (19th)
Points Allowed: 26.3 (24th)
Total Defense: 383.0 (24th)
Passing Defense: 243.7 (18th)
Rushing Defense: 139.3 (27th)