This game is big in terms of confidence, as the team looks to bounce back after an embarrassing 36-7 defeat at home last Thursday against the New York Giants.
It’s also big in terms of playoff potential. A win over the division-mate Falcons would put the Panthers within a game of the NFC South leaders, provide them the nod in head-to-head tiebreakers with Atlanta and give them the edge when the two meet again in December.
While escaping the Georgia Dome with a victory will be no small task, the Panthers have a prime opportunity to get their name back into the discussion for playoff contenders.
Let’s examine some of the more important aspects for the Panthers if they hope to beat the unbeaten.
No other contest has proven why pass-rushers are at a premium in the NFL more so than the beatdown the Giants administered in Charlotte last Thursday.
The Giants D-line was able to put pressure on quarterback Cam Newton all night, consistently getting off their blocks quickly and blowing up Carolina’s trademark read-option plays in the backfield all night.
This prevented the Panthers from really establishing the run, forced the offense to become one-dimensional and resulted in Newton throwing three picks.
On the flip side, the Panthers pass-rushers could not get off of their blocks at all.
While Carolina was able to get to Eli Manning twice on Thursday, it was evident that the Panthers’ D-line did little to interrupt his rhythm.
The end result was over 280 yards passing by Eli and a 36-7 Carolina defeat.
If the Panthers don’t show the ability to generate more pressure than they have, so far, in this young season, they’ll be lucky to hold the Falcons to less than four touchdowns.
A rookie will be covering either Julio Jones or Roddy White on every play. How’s that for reassuring?
While first-year defensive back Josh Norman has been relatively serviceable, so far, this year, he has yet to face a receiver nearly as talented as the two who will be suiting up for the Falcons on Sunday.
Veteran Chris Gamble will do his part in limiting one of the Falcons’ dynamic pass-catchers, but that still leaves talented players such as Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas for someone else in the Panthers’ secondary to contend with.
Carolina safety Haruki Nakumura followed up a very physical Week 2 with a disappointing performance against the Giants. He consistently got outmuscled by New York’s pass-catchers and will face an even bigger challenge with the big-bodied receiving targets on Atlanta’s roster.
With Jon Beason battling injury and uncertain to play, that could leave a gap in front of the safeties. The Carolina safeties will have their work cut out for them, but if the defensive backs can handle some man-to-man assignments, the defense, as a whole, should be able to limit Atlanta’s high-flying aerial assault.
In any case, the Panthers' defensive backfield has a tall order to fill, particularly when considering Matt Ryan is leading the league in completion percentage (72 percent).
The Panthers defense has forced two turnovers all season. The offense, on the other hand, managed to turn the ball over five times in just one game.
The Falcons have the most interceptions in the league (seven) and a turnover differential of +10, thanks in large part to a pair of ball-hawking safeties, Thomas DeCoud and William Moore, who have performed better than expected, so far, this season.
Quarterback Cam Newton has committed six turnovers on his own (five interceptions, one fumble) and has struggled with forcing the ball when facing pressure.
If the Panthers hope to keep within striking distance of the Falcons, protecting the ball should be their No. 1 priority.
How Carolina can have almost $100 million invested into their offensive backfield and still only run the ball about 24 times a game has left fans, and analysts alike, scratching their heads.
In the Panthers’ lone victory of the season against the Saints, the rushing attack was a focal point. In the two losses? It seemed more of an afterthought.
If this Atlanta defense has a weakness, it’s in the middle of their front seven. Falcons' second-year middle linebacker Akeem Dent hasn’t quite lived up to the production of his predecessor Curtis Lofton, and the strength of the defensive line comes from the ends.
For the Panthers to finally live up to their potential on offense, they must establish the running game early.
We’ll see if Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski will adjust his game plan to feature more between-the-tackles running and not exclusively out of the shotgun formation.
For Carolina to be successful, they must control the tempo of the game and base their offensive attack off the run to create balance and keep the opportunistic Atlanta defense honest.