Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers Preview

Matt Ryan has thrown for over 300 yards in three straight contests. (Rogelio Solis)

Matt Ryan has thrown for over 300 yards in three straight contests. (Rogelio Solis)

No one would have ever guessed that a Week 17 matchup between the 6-9 Atlanta Falcons and 6-8-1 Carolina Panthers would have so much at stake.

The winner takes the NFC South and locks up the final playoff spot in the conference.

The loser goes home with a top 10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.

History is on Atlanta’s side as the division has never had back-to-back winners. Carolina won the South last season with a 12-4 record.

But the Falcons have been sizzling recently.

Last week, the defense stifled a New Orleans Saints offense that ranks first in the league. The Falcons sacked Drew Brees five times – tying a season-high – and collected two interceptions. They also recovered two forced fumbles.

Offensively, Matt Ryan has been surgical, throwing for over 300 yards in the each of the past four games. During that stretch, he’s tossed nine touchdowns to three interceptions and completed over 70 percent of his passes in three of those games.

It helps when you have Julio Jones playing at an elite level. The wide receiver, who was voted to the Pro Bowl for the second time in his four-year career, has reeled in 28 receptions for 555 yards and two touchdowns in those four games. And he put up those numbers while missing the Week 15 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Jones is nursing a hip injury he suffered in Week 14. But, judging from his performance last week, it won’t hinder his performance on the field.

The Panthers have come back from the dead, too.

After dropping six consecutive games, Carolina is currently riding a three-game win streak, starting with a dominating win over the Saints in Week 14.

Despite suffering two back fractures that forced him to missed Week 15, Cam Newton came back last week to lead the Panthers to a win over the Cleveland Browns.

Newton was hesitant to leave the pocket and pick up yards on the ground to start the season, but that hasn’t been the case recently. In his past three starts, he’s racked up 195 yards and two touchdowns.

Carolina has also benefited from the play of Jonathan Stewart.  In the last four games, the running back has accounted for 437 rushing yards with a 155-yard effort against the Saints highlighting that span.

The Falcons were victorious in the Week 11 game in Carolina as they held on for a 19-17 win.

If Atlanta wins Sunday, they will finish the year with a 6-0 record against divisional foes.

I think the Falcons will earn their third division title under head coach Mike Smith and head into the following weekend with a home playoff game. The curse of the NFC South lives on.

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