Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Preview

Matt Ryan should have a good day against a generous Panthers defense. (Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Matt Ryan should have a good day against a generous Panthers defense. (Phelan M. Ebenhack)

It seems absurd for the 3-6 Atlanta Falcons and 3-6-1 Carolina Panthers to be in the thick of race for the NFC South, but that’s the case as the New Orleans Saints lead the division with a 4-6 record. And if the Saints lose to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it will be either the Falcons or the Panthers atop the division.

Atlanta earned its first road victory of the season last week with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Each of the Falcons’ three wins have each come within the division: a series sweep over the Bucs and a home victory against the Saints.

The Falcons’ being able to win only within the division is a microcosm of the NFC South’s troubles a whole. Combined, the teams are a woeful 5-19-1 when facing opponents outside of the division.

Carolina hasn’t won a game since beating the Chicago Bears back in Week 5. The Panthers went on to tie with the Cincinnati Bengals the following week and went on to lose their next four games. In the blowout loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 10, Cam Newton was sacked nine times.

All season, Carolina’s offensive line has struggled in pass protection. Newton has been sacked 30 times – only Colin Kaepernick has been sacked more (31). The Panthers quarterback has been dealing with injuries since the season started, and he was held out of the first game of the year.

However, despite the injuries and dreadful pass protection, Newton hasn’t been on target with his throw. He’s completed just as 58.1 percent of his passes, which ranks 29th in the league. During the Panthers’ current losing streak, that completion percentage drops to 51.9.

Newton hasn’t been taking care of the ball, either. Over the past four games, he’s been responsible for nine turnovers (six interceptions, three lost fumbles). Those numbers are in stark contrast to Newton’s first four games in which he turned the ball over just three times (one interception, two lost fumbles).

The Falcons have had protection problems of their own. With five total offensive linemen being lost for the season – and four of them starters at one point – Atlanta has had to dig deep into the depth chart. At center, the Falcons are starting James Stone, who was an undrafted free agent. At right tackle, the Falcons are starting another undrafted free agent in Ryan Schraeder.

But in the past two games, Matt Ryan has been sacked just three times and pressured a lot less than he was in previous matchups. Atlanta’s pass protection should show up again against a defense that isn’t nearly as menacing as it was last season. Things get significantly easier for the Falcons with defensive tackle Star Lotulelei missing the game and defensive end Greg Hardy dealing with a domestic abuse issue.

The Panthers could be in dire straits trying to defend Julio Jones and particularly Roddy White, who has torched the division foe for 461 yards and five touchdowns on 32 catches in his past four games.

Both teams’ defenses leave a lot to be desired. Atlanta’s defense is ranked 31st in the league as it allows 404.8 yards per game. Carolina’s defense doesn’t fare much better, ranking 25th as it allows 376.8 yards.

The difference between the two teams is with their offenses: the Falcons rank eighth and the Panthers rank 25th. Ultimately, I think the offenses will be the difference in this game, and while I initially thought the Falcons would come up short, I’m calling an audible and picking them to emerge victorious and improve to 4-6 on the season.

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