Implications of Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons Sunday Matchup

Charles Edwards@@CEdwards80Contributor ISeptember 29, 2012

Plays like this will help Carolina make a statement on Sunday.
Plays like this will help Carolina make a statement on Sunday.Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

Three games into the NFL season, the Carolina Panthers find themselves sitting at 1-2.

This was not the record many had predicted for them entering Week 4. Then again, with the impressive collection of elite teams sharing an identical record, many did not see that coming, either.

Perhaps too much was made about the Panthers this offseason following their 4-2 finish last season. Of course, it could be argued that 1-2 would be their most likely record after three games.

The Panthers were predicted to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but they disappointed, losing 16-10.

The New Orleans Saints figured to be a tough out, even with the Bountygate fiasco, and Jon Beason's interception at the end sealed a high-scoring win.

Finally, there was the prime-time showdown against the New York Giants, in a game where some reserves for the Giants really stepped up. 

So, perhaps 1-2 shouldn't come as a surprise.

Now, the Panthers have a date with the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons have generally had the Panthers' number, and there are a couple of red flags to take from this game.

First, the Panthers haven't beaten the Falcons this decade. Second, they have not secured a win in the Georgia Dome since 2007.

The chances of Carolina falling to 1-3 are looking more and more possible with every troubling fact regarding the series history, and we haven't mentioned the success Matt Ryan has experienced so far this season.

A win against Atlanta is not only important to boost the confidence of the Panthers, but it is vital in light of the upcoming schedule. The Panthers would like to welcome the Seattle Seahawks next week at 2-2. Following that contest, Carolina has its bye week.

Unfortunately, the post-bye-week schedule doesn't get any easier, and if the Panthers can't work out the kinks, they will soon find themselves buried in their division.

On offense, the road to redemption starts with quarterback Cam Newton. The subject of sports radio, television and one newspaper comic strip, Newton needs to rediscover that swagger that led him to being a No. 1 selection last year.

He has a ton of talent, but it means nothing if he doesn't develop thick skin, take his lumps and get back up.

Team captain and spark plug Steve Smith hopefully drove that message home with his fiery tongue-lashing of Newton last week. While the conversation may have been best suited behind closed doors, Smith wants to see his quarterback succeed.

Another aspect of the offensive woes has been the lack of a running game.

The Panthers boast three talented running backs, but they have nothing to show for it. It seems as though the run has been abandoned far too early in favor of passing plays. Plus, the absence of Jonathan Stewart for two games hasn't helped things, either.

Of course, for the unit to play at the level everyone expects them to, the line needs to improve. The young guys and the veterans are all struggling. Running lanes are not being opened, and Newton has been flushed from the pocket more than he would like.

However, that is not the only area that needs to step up on game day.

The defense has not shown much improvement and, with the exception of the game against the Saints in Week 2, has failed to really apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Every unit of the defense has been dealing with some kind of concern. The defensive line has failed to clog running lanes and get to the quarterback. The linebackers have been dealing with health and performance issues. The secondary has been giving up too many receptions for a lot of yards.

Needless to say, if these units and their playmakers cannot get it together on Sunday, the game will be ugly.

If Carolina is to pull off the upset and get the victory, its situation improves. For starters, the Panthers will move to 2-2 with a chance to be above .500 going into their bye week.

Considering the plethora of contending teams they are tied with, this is a great opportunity to get an early foothold and put some cushion between them and the rest of the field.

The Panthers cannot afford to enter the bye week at 1-4. Since 1990, only 11 teams have gone on to make the playoffs after being behind three games at any point in the season. The New York Jets were the last team to make the playoffs after starting 1-4. That was in 2002.

It is for this reason that victory over the Falcons is crucial. With a win, the Panthers still control their own destiny and instill a renewed faith within themselves and their fanbase. If they lose, it could spell the beginning of the end, which may result in changes from top to bottom within the organization.

There is no denying the potential of this team, but individual talents mean nothing unless the Panthers as a whole come together.

Knocking off an unbeaten team would be a great starting point.