The Atlanta Falcons, one of just three undefeated teams left in the NFL, will look to extend their NFC South lead with a victory over the Carolina Panthers in Week 4. The Falcons won both games between the division rivals last season.
Atlanta's hot start has been widely overlooked, mostly because the replacement referees are stealing so much air time, but Matt Ryan and company probably like it that way. The Falcons already have two solid road wins and a victory over Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos.
The Panthers haven't been nearly as impressive. Even though they did defeat the reeling New Orleans Saints, the win was sandwiched by a pair of losses. The schedule doesn't get any easier, so Carolina has to step up or it will fade quickly.
All told, Sunday's clash carries a high level of importance for both sides. The Falcons will try to establish themselves as an elite team, while the Panthers attempt to get back in the divisional race.
Here's all the key information for the game followed by a preview.
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
When: Sunday, Sept. 30 at 1 p.m. ET
Listen: WBT 1110 AM (Carolina) or WQXI 790 AM (Atlanta)
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Betting Line: Falcons -7 (Vegas Insider)
Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
Panthers: Jonathan Stewart (questionable, ankle), Thomas Davis (questionable, hamstring) and Colin Jones (questionable, shoulder)
Falcons: Chris Owens (questionable, head) and Antone Smith (questionable, hamstring)
What's At Stake?
It's no longer too early to make judgments about teams. After the game ends on Sunday, both Carolina and Atlanta will be at the quarter pole, which means the preseason forecasts fade away and teams start getting evaluated on what they've actually done.
For the Falcons, it's a chance to open up a huge division lead. They are already up by two games and the Panthers are one of the teams tied for second. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face a tricky test against the Washington Redskins, meaning it could be a three-game lead by week's end.
Aside from stopping that gap from widening, the Panthers also have to gain some confidence to build off. They looked like a promising team after showing glimpses of strong play late last season, but it hasn't carried over to 2012.
Fantasy Player to Watch: Tony Gonzalez
Gonzalez has been an underrated fantasy player for the past handful of seasons. As the tight end position became more pivotal in NFL offenses, fantasy owners turned to younger, more explosive options. However, Gonzalez continues to outproduce them.
He currently ranks second in tight end scoring behind only Vernon Davis. He's caught at least one touchdown in each game and hasn't scored less than 11 fantasy points in the first three weeks. It shows, even at 36, he's as reliable as they come.
Gonzalez faces a Panthers defense that has allowed opposing tight ends to reach double-digit fantasy points in two straight weeks. He's clearly on the same page with Ryan in the red zone, making him a terrific fantasy option.
What They're Saying
The Panthers have been dealing with some internal turmoil after Steve Smith called out Cam Newton, something head coach Ron Rivera would have preferred stayed behind closed doors, according to Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer.
Whether you get criticized or you’re the one criticizing, you take it for what it is. It’s a discussion. Honestly, I just wish it was a discussion that would have been kept between the two of them. I don’t think it needs to be out there. But that’s what happened, so I’ll leave it at that.
Atlanta has been getting tremendous play from safety duo Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, providing a big boost to the defense. Kirk Kenney of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports DeCoud takes a lot of pride in that.
That’s one of the things William and I have taken to heart as safeties, especially in this new system. You’ve got to get the ball back, and we have a lot of opportunities to do that. It’s evident in our play right now.
Panthers Key Player: Cam Newton
Newton hasn't been able to replicate his quick start from last season. He's turned the ball over six times and contributed just four touchdowns through three games. When he's not a dynamic playmaker, the Panthers struggle.
In the team's two losses, his quarterback rating has been below 85 with a combined 10 rushing yards. In Carolina's victory over New Orleans, he had a QB rating of nearly 130 with 71 rushing yards. That's not a coincidence.
When you consider the Falcons defense has already had a lot of success against Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers, it's clear Newton faces an uphill battle on Sunday. He must rise to the occasion for the Panthers to have a chance.
Falcons Key Player: Michael Turner
Atlanta's passing game is one of the best in the league. In order for the Falcons to sustain their early success over the long haul, however, Turner needs to ensure the team has balance on offense with a good rushing attack.
Turner is no longer the game-breaking back he was during his peak seasons, but the veteran running back is still capable of handling the load as he proved last season. Averaging 3.7 yards per carry isn't going to cut it.
His backups, Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling, haven't done enough to earn more playing time. Therefore, the burden will continue to rest on Turner's shoulders. If he can build off last week's strong showing, the Falcons should be in great shape.
Falcons 31, Panthers 21