Led to an 11-1 record by quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons are one of the NFL's hottest teams and avenged their one blemish on the year by topping the New Orleans Saints, 23-13 on Thursday Night Football. Atlanta's defense picked off Drew Brees five times and was the first defense to hold Brees touchdown-less in 54 games.
The Panthers haven't lived up to their lofty 2012 expectations with a 3-9 record. Last week's 27-21 defeat to the hapless Kansas City Chiefs was the prime example of their season, as they simply haven't been able to keep momentum going from previous wins.
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
When: Sunday, December 9, 1 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NFL.com
Injury Report (via CBS Sports, as of Dec. 3)
Panthers: Antwan Applewhite (doubtful, hamstring), Cam Newton (probable, right wrist), Jonathan Stewart (doubtful, ankle), Brandon LaFell (unknown, foot), Sherrod Martin (unknown, right knee), Captain Munnerlyn (questionable, hamstring)
Falcons: Sam Baker (probable, groin), Kevin Cone (probable, groin), Harry Douglas (probable, ankle), Peria Jerry (questionable, quadriceps), Charles Mitchell (probable, calf), Stephen Nicholas (probable, knee), Michael Palmer (probable, back), Dunta Robinson (probable, illness), Asante Samuel (questionable, shoulder), Vance Walker (probable, ribs), Sean Weatherspoon (probable, ankle).
What's At Stake?
After clinching the NFC South upon a Tampa Bay Buccaneers loss, the Falcons are cruising toward the NFC's top seed whether they win Sunday or not.
For the Panthers, their playoff hopes have evaporated, but they still have the opportunity to pick up undoubtedly the best win of their season and close out strong to give the league a reason to fear them in 2013.
Then again, they're only a couple of losses away from claiming a top-five pick in next year's draft.
Atlanta RB Michael Turner
The cards are stacked heavily in Michael Turner's favor in this Week 14 matchup.
Carolina's defense has been suspect in recent weeks, especially on the ground. Eagles rookie running back Bryce Brown had his coming-out party against the Panthers two weeks ago, finishing with 178 rushing yards and two scores.
They had similar issues handling Chiefs speedster Jamaal Charles last week as also he surpassed the century mark in their win.
Plus, Turner didn't exactly have a bad outing last week against the Saints with 83 yards and a touchdown.
The Falcons should have no trouble asserting their dominance early, which will mean more and more carries for Turner. The holes will be there, so expect him to take advantage.
Carolina WR Steve Smith
It'd be foolish to say Atlanta has a suspect defense, but their coverage of opponents' top two receivers in its past few games leads me to believe Panthers wideout Steve Smith could have a big day against the Falcons on Sunday.
Despite picking off Drew Brees to the tune of five interceptions on Thursday Night Football, the Falcons allowed Lance Moore to notch 123 receiving yards on seven catches.
The Falcons may be able to force turnovers and keep their opponents out of the end zone, but Newton could be giving his receivers big yardage totals after Brees lit them up for 341 yards through the air last week.
With 770 yards receiving this season, Smith has certainly been able to make his fantasy owners happy so far in 2012. And we all know he gets the ball thrown to him between the 20s as much as any receiver in the league.
What They Are Saying
Despite that Falcons rusher Michael Turner has performed like an every-down back in recent years, it seems that head coach Mike Smith is leaning toward giving his backup running backs more reps, according to Tom Kessenich of STATS LLC.
Mike Smith now calling his backfield a committee. Looks like Rodgers will see more consistent rushing attempts. #Falcons.— Tom Kessenich (@TomKessenich) November 28, 2012
There's no doubt Panthers head coach Ron Rivera is on the hot seat after a depressing season, but he's not backing down to the media.
Rivera made it clear that he's still operating the team as if he'll be the coach past this year, whether fans and spectators agree or not, according to Joe Person of The Charlotte Observer.
Rivera: some might say you're getting young guys ready for next coach. Don't see it that way. Getting them ready for me.— Joe Person (@josephperson) December 3, 2012
Key Matchup: Cam Newton vs. Falcons Pass Rush
It's safe to say that Cam Newton has undergone the all-too-common sophomore slump, but he's still proven to be dangerous at times this season.
Newton leads his team in rushing yards with 446, which is a feat in itself. He's on track for another 700+ yard season on the ground, and he has upped his game in the red zone with six touchdowns.
The Falcons' defensive ends will need to contain the speedster gunslinger for them to adequately stop the running attack he possesses. With veteran 34-year-old John Abraham playing well—he has 10 sacks on the season—the Falcons have proven to be more dangerous than expected heading into the 2012 season.
They will need to continue their improvement against one of the league's most dangerous scramblers.
Even though the Panthers have the benefit of playing at home, it won't stop one of the league's dominant teams.
The Falcons will give Carolina its 10th loss of the year while maintaining their firm stranglehold as the NFC's top team.
Falcons 31, Panthers 13