The Atlanta Falcons hit the road to take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The NFC South champs are riding high, while the Panthers' season is continuing its downward spiral. On paper, the Falcons merely need to execute to secure their 12th win. Games are not played on paper though, and looking past the Panthers could be more costly than a blemish on Atlanta's record.
The Atlanta Falcons will be facing their third division rival in as many weeks. The Falcons grounded out a 24-23 victory against a physical Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad. Four days later, the Falcons left the Georgia Dome emotionally spent after defeating the New Orleans Saints, 23-13. Each game was intense and took their toll on the Falcons roster. Most notably, Asante Samuel was banged up in both games.
Heading to Charlotte will be no picnic. If familiarity breeds contempt, then there is a reason for these two teams to hate each other. The Panthers have not had a victory over the Falcons since 2009, and they have undoubtedly not forgotten the heartbreak of how close they came earlier this year in Atlanta. If any team in the league has chip on its shoulder, it is the Carolina Panthers.
Gunning For Ryan
When the two teams met in September, the Carolina Panthers attacked Matt Ryan with an unmatched ferocity. Ryan was constantly under pressure and banged around all day. The Panthers sacked Ryan seven times for a total of 64 yards. Despite being pummeled, Ryan still threw for 369 yards and three touchdowns.
Atlanta has had a little more success in the run the game, but the key to defeating them still requires stopping Ryan in the fourth quarter. The Panthers will be looking to hit him early and often in order to stymie the Atlanta offense.
Focus For Safety's Sake
In two weeks, the Falcons will become a part of the national discussion when they take on the New York Giants. The Giants dealt Atlanta a humiliating 24-2 playoff defeat. The Giants will also join the long list of "we will respect the Falcons when they beat...," teams. No one could blame Atlanta if it stole its attention.
The Panthers have nothing left to play for but pride and a sense of revenge. A loss will mean little in the Panthers' already disjointed locker room, but a victory could mean everything. The Panthers will be a highly motivated and highly physical team on Sunday. This will make them far more dangerous to the Falcons than just the win-loss column.
If the Falcons take them lightly, it will be at their own peril.