For the second time in less than three weeks, the Panthers take on NFC South rival Atlanta, this time in a prime time match-up at Bank of America stadium. The Panthers are coming off a close loss to the Saints, while the Falcons blew yet another lead, losing to the Lions on a touchdown as time expired. That dropped them to just 1-6 on the season.
But don't be fooled by that record. The Falcons have a ton of talent and nearly won the first match-up against the Panthers in week 5.
“We know they're going to come out with fire,” said receiver Curtis Samuel. “It doesn't matter, a team record, nobody's going to go out there and just give up. They're going to come out and play hard, play tough.”
Since the week five loss to the Panthers, the Falcons have fired Dan Quin and promoted defensive coordinator Raheem Morris to interim head coach. They've also gotten some injured players back, including star receiver Julio Jones. The 10-year veteran has 16 catches for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the past two games, and is looking like his All-Pro self of old.
“The best wide receiver in the game,” said Panther safety Tre Boston. “He's nice, he's a great player.”
So is veteran quarterback Matt Ryan. The former MVP ranks number one in the NFL with nearly 2200 passing yards, and has thrown 12 touchdowns with just 3 interceptions. But Boston and the Panthers defense has been solid against the pass, allowing just 227 yards a game, that's 10th in the league.
Defending the run has been more difficult – and the Panthers will face a great running back Thursday night in All-Pro Todd Gurley. The former Georgia standout picked up 121 yards and a touchdown against the Panthers in their first match-up and he's tough to defend.
“He can get the defense committing to one gap and then bounce to the next gap,” said Panther linebacker Brian Burns. “That's something he does really well. He can really sell one gap you think he's going to hit, and then bounce right out of it and make a big play.”
Limiting big plays has been a problem for the Falcons defense, which continues to rank next to last in the league in total yards and passing yards allowed, and they're giving up nearly 30 points a game. And they seem to come up with new ways to lose games every week. One thing they have been doing well is stopping the run, giving up just 92 yards a contest, that's 6th in the NFL.
Several key players have been injured, although starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen are both healthy again. Veteran defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is a force on the front line, and linebacker Foye Oluokun is having a great season – he leads the team in tackles and has three of the the Falcon's six forced fumbles.
“Honestly, this is a team that plays fast,” said Panther quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. “They're flying around. You feel those guys when you watch the tape. We can't let them come out and dictate the flow of the game, and we've got to be the more physical team.”
This does not exactly look like a must-see game. But as awful as the Falcon's record is, they have been in most of the games they've played, holding late leads in three of them. And you can't discount the rivalry factor. No doubt the Falcons would love to knock off their division foes - they've done that in five of the last six match-ups between these teams. Add all that up, and you've got a dangerous team.
“It's one of those deals where you watch their games and they're in these games,” said Bridgewater. “They may have the lead or they may be playing from behind but it's a team that won't quit, they won't go away. So we understand that it's going to take all four quarters to win this game.”