The Panthers head down I-85 for a division matchup against Atlanta on Sunday, and on paper, it doesn't exactly look like must-see TV. The Falcons are 0-4 on the season and are reeling after a blowout loss to the Packers.
The Panthers are trending up, coming off an impressive win over the Cardinals last week to improve to 2-2 on the season. But this is a rivalry game – or is it?
“I haven't heard anybody talk about a rivalry since I've been here,” said receiver D.J. Moore. “In the three years that I've been here I've never heard that it was a rivalry. I just know that we've got to get a win.”
Okay, so I guess that cancels the “anything can happen in a rivalry game” cliché. But the part about having to get a win? That's true, for both teams.
The Falcons can't seem to get it together on either side of the ball this season. They've suffered some brutal defensive meltdowns reminiscent of their Super Bowl implosion, coughing up 4th quarter leads of 16 and 15 points to the Cowboys and the Bears.
Part of that is due to injuries to several key players, including star receiver Julio Jones. But they still have plenty of talent, starting with veteran quarterback Matt Ryan. He's got the Falcons near the top of the league in passing offense at 311 yards per game. And with Jones hampered by a hamstring injury, Calvin Ridley has stepped up to become Ryan's top target.
They'll face a Panthers defense that has stepped up its play in the past two weeks, particularly against the pass. They're ranked 7th in the league now allowing just 227 yards per game.
“They keep things in front of them,” said Ryan. “They do a good job of trying to limit explosive plays.”
The Falcons can throw the ball but they're having a hard time running it, averaging about 101 yards per game, that's 23rd in the league. They let Pro Bowl running back Devonta Freeman go, replacing him with All-Pro Todd Gurley. So far, the former Georgia star has been average, picking up 254 yards and four touchdowns.
But he'll face a Panther defense that hasn't been very good against the run, giving up over 5 yards per carry, that's 29th in the league.
The Falcons are actually pretty good against the run, allowing just 108 yards per game. But they're pretty bad at everything else, giving up nearly 448 total yards and 34 points a contest, both next to last in the league.
Injuries have certainly played a big part, particularly in the secondary. The Falcons like to play three safeties but starters Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen have both been out with injuries, and Damontae Kazee tore his achilles against the Packers. As a result, Atlanta's pass defense is second to last in the NFL, giving up over 341 yards per game through the air.
Neal and Allen could return this week, but it will be interesting to see how Panthers quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and company fare against this group.
The Falcons parted ways with former pass rushers Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn, replacing them with former Rams standout Donte Fowler Jr. and Charles Harris. They've still got a stud at defensive end in Tak McKinley, although he's missed two games with a groin injury. Run stuffer Grady Jarrett holds down the front line, speedy linebacker Deion Jones leads the team in tackles.
This game looks like it should be an easy win for the Panthers. But no one is looking past the Falcons. They've won five straight in this series, and the Panthers haven't won in Atlanta since 2014. And while the Falcons might be winless on the season, the Panthers know exactly how dangerous they are.
“I can tell what kind of a team we're going to face because just two weeks ago, we were the same team,” said Bridgewater. “Those guys are fighting to find a win. We can't just go out there and think they're going to hand it to us.”