4:25 PM EST, FOX – Line: Falcons -4, Over/Under: 46
On the final weekend of the Regular Season, the Playoff Picture is nearly complete, with today’s meeting between the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia for all intents and purposes completing it. You’d be hard-pressed to find a team in the league enjoying more momentum at the moment than the Panthers (11-4, 2nd in NFC South), who are certainly heating up at the right time, winning seven out of their past eight games, including each of their last three outings. With one game left to play, this team’s fortunes remain very unclear, for while they’ve already clinched a return to the Playoffs, forecasting where they are likely to end up is anyone’s guess. Worst case scenario for Ron Rivera’s charges is that they simply stand their ground in the NFC’s First Wild Card, meaning they will travel to whomever the Fourth seed may be next weekend. However, a win today coupled with a New Orleans loss at Tampa Bay would allow them to vault their division brethren, win the NFC South and host next weekend’s affair against those same Saints. Furthermore, the most improbable of scenarios would involve not only involve a win today paired with a Saints’ loss, but if both the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams meet defeat in their respective finales, then Carolina will ascend all the way to the No. Two Seed in the NFC, granting them a Bye in their First Round. This is made possible on the strength of their head-to-head victory over Minnesota three weeks ago, where the Panthers pummeled the visiting side’s staunch Defense on the ground, rushing for 216 Yards, while forcing Three Turnovers on Defense. With that said, that last scenario could be resolved well before today’s contest kicks off, for the Vikings will face the Chicago Bears at 1:00 PM EST, meaning that Cam Newton and Co. will in all likelihood know their ceiling before they even take the field Sunday afternoon. Of course, Newton (60.5%, 208.1 Y/G, 5.90 NY/A, 21 TD, 13 INT), the 2015 MVP, healthy after being hampered by nagging injuries all last year, looks to have rounded back into form at the right time, igniting the attack. The Fan Base will be happy to know that their team’s recent surge has had a lot to do with the Coaching Staff taking the shackles off of the dual-threat dynamo, allowing him to play the innovative (and at times reckless) style that earned him such plaudits earlier in his career; over the past eight outings, Newton has been ruthlessly efficient, throwing Twelve Touchdowns in comparison to just Three Interceptions, while factoring into the Rushing Attack far more heavily than he did during the first half of the campaign, rushing for 484 Yards and Three more Scores on Seventy-Nine Carries. During this stretch, he’s topped Fifty Rushing Yards on six occasions, and will in all likelihood end this term as the team’s leading rusher, having paced the unit to this point with an impressive 695 Yards and Six Touchdowns, with that yardage representing a greater total than the 636 he amassed back in his magical 2015 season. Carolina is 6-7 against Atlanta since drafting Newton back in 2011, having lost three consecutive meetings before earning a narrow 20-17 victory at Bank of America Stadium back in early November, in which the hosts overcame an early 10-Point Deficit to outscore the visiting side 20-7 the rest of the way. The running game proved to be decisive for the Panthers, who bludgeoned the Falcons for 201 Rushing Yards on Thirty-Eight Carries, with Newton tormenting them for Eighty-Six Yards and a Touchdown on just Nine Attempts. Furthermore, Newton has experienced what can be described as very much a mixed bag against over the course of his career against Atlanta, completing 57.5% of his Passes for an average of 209.7 Yards, with Seventeen Touchdowns in comparison to Twelve interceptions, the most he’s thrown against any opponent in the league. However, despite the passing struggles, he’s tormented the with his feet more often than any other foe, rushing for 672 Yards and Seven Scores on Ninety-Two Carries. As was the case during their run to the Super Bowl two years ago, the Ground Game has had PLENTY to do with their recent form, for Newton and Co. have averaged 166.8 Rushing Yards over the past eight contests in comparison to just 97.3 in the seven tilts prior.
Meanwhile, if today’s meeting at Mercedes-Benz Stadium certainly means something to the Panthers, than it must mean absolutely everything to the Falcons (9-6, 3rd in NFC South), who have been granted one last opportunity to course-correct their frustratingly inconsistent season, which has been harrowed by the lingering nightmare of their Super Bowl LI Debacle. Simply put, if Atlanta is able to avenge their earlier loss to Carolina, then they’re safely into the Playoffs as the Sixth Seed in the NFC, where they will in all likelihood face the surprising Los Angeles Rams in next weekend’s Wild Card Round. However, all is not lost if they did happen to meet defeat to their Division Rivals once more, for a loss by the Seattle Seahawks, who will meet the decimated Arizona Cardinals in their Season Finale, will also ensure their safe passage to the Postseason. Of course, Dan Quinn and his charges would prefer to take matters into their own hands, so that the reigning NFC Champions may enter January with some modicum of momentum on their side. It couldn’t hurt for a team that has been maddeningly difficult to figure out in 2017, for in all honesty, you’d probably have better luck solving a Rubix Cube than this current incarnation of the Dirty Birds. The Falcons own the distinction of enjoying both a pair of 3-Game Winning Streaks, while also managing to lose three games in a row as well, and despite the fact that they’ve been more successful over the second half of the term (5-2 since November 12th), you would be hard-pressed to find anyone that really believes that this team is truly greater than the sum of their considerable parts. Ironically, the majority of their issues can be found on Offense, where they were absolutely devastating a year ago, leading the NFL in scoring at 33.8 Points per Game, led by MVP Quarterback Matt Ryan, who led the league in a slew of Passing Categories including Touchdown Percentage (7.1%), Yards per Attempt (9.3) Net Yards per Attempt (8.3), Yards per Completion (13.3), Passer Rating (117.1) and QBR (83.3), while setting personal bests in Completion Percentage (69.9%), Touchdown Passes (38), Interceptions (7), and Passing Yards (4,944). This year however, has been a different story, with the 32-Year Old Veteran regressing mightily across the board, completing 64.9% of this Attempts for an average of 251.9 Yards on 7.16 Net Yards per Attempt, with just Nineteen Touchdowns in comparison Twelve Interceptions. It seems that former Offensive Coordinator Kyle Shanahan took whatever magic he and this unit had with him to San Francisco, for their has been an astounding lack of chemistry with this unit, with their rhythm and timing rarely being on pair with their performances in previous years. Many have pointed the finger at Shanahan’s successor, Steve Sarkisian, despite this outfit ranking Ninth in the NFL in Total Offense (374.4 Y/G), and First in Third Down Percentage (45.3%). Honestly, the problem has been twofold for Ryan and Co. with the first being Turnovers. The Falcons committed the fewest Turnovers in the NFL in 2016, giving the football away just eleven times, granting them a very healthy Plus-11 Turnover Differential in the process. However, in 2017 that script has flipped with the Offense accounting for Eighteen Turnovers (10th Overall), while the Defense has managed a scant Thirteen Takeaways (30th Overall), shifting that Differential to a dismal Minus-5. The other problem has been the stunning lack of big plays, which were a hallmark of this unit a year ago. Atlanta led the NFL with a staggering Eighty-Four Offensive Plays of Twenty Yards or more, with Nineteen of them going for Touchdowns, but in 2017 have subsequently seen that proverbial well run dry, totaling Sixty-Three Plays of Twenty or more Yards, with just Seven ending in a Score. Needless to say, with Pro Bowlers such as Ryan, Julio Jones (83 REC, 1,363 YDS, 3 TD), and Devonta Freeman (185 CAR, 842 YDS, 7 TD) among their ranks, you expect more out of the Falcons, particularly given their past exploits. Far too many times this year have they resembled a rudderless, directionless mess, instead of the machine they were a short year ago. Take last weekend’s toothless 23-13 performance at New Orleans for example; the visitors couldn’t maintain drives, struggling to establish the Run with Sixty-Seven Yards on Twenty Carries, failed miserably on Third Down (2-of-13), while committing an inexcusable Ten Penalties for Ninety-One Yards, coupled with a pair of Turnovers against a team that they defeated just two weeks prior. Ryan was under duress throughout the affair, taking Five Sacks, while getting knocked down on countless others, despite feeding Jones to the tune of Seven Receptions for 149 Yards. The loss snapped a 2-Game Winning Streak, and any hope of running the table and earning a second straight NFC South Title, which makes the prospects of their destiny remaining in their own hands a very cautious one to be sure.