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Carolina Panthers: 5 Things to Watch Against the Atlanta Falcons

Charles EdwardsContributor INovember 1, 2013

Carolina Panthers: 5 Things to Watch Against the Atlanta Falcons

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers (4-3) take on their I-85 and NFC South rival, the Atlanta Falcons (2-5), this weekend. This will be the first of two division meetings between the two teams, with the Panthers playing somewhat surprisingly good and the Falcons playing very surprisingly bad. 

    The latter can be argued their record is due to a rash of injuries to key players, but they rank in the bottom half in rushing yards, passing defense and rushing defense. They rank fourth in passing yards, and that will be tested against a Carolina secondary that has been pretty solid this season.

    There are many aspects to watch for as Carolina plays its second divisional game of the year, and a win will go a long way heading into their road game against the San Francisco 49ers. The storylines are plentiful, and Sunday’s game could further define the Panthers’ identity at the halfway point.

    Here are the top five things to watch this weekend.

Cam Will Continue to Grow

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    A lot has been made about Cam Newton’s level of success in the NFL, and despite setting multiple team and league records, he has never been afforded the right amount of respect that seemed due. Of course, failing to get his team to the playoffs or above .500 can be argued as reason enough why. 

    That is not the case this season.

    Newton has talked about being more consistent in games this season, and if the last three contests are any indication, he has done just that. Over that span, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com, he is 58-of-75 (good for a 77 percent completion rate), 677 passing yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He has also rushed for 106 yards and two scores within that same time frame.

    The end result has been three consecutive wins and a strong case for a fourth against Atlanta. Newton hasn’t needed to play spectacular to give his team a chance to score. He has played smartly and, more importantly, has been consistent. Newton has been quick to credit his teammates for his success, as outlined in recent comments per Max Henson of Panthers.com.

    I feel as if my production is off a lot of people's production as well. If you want to solely say I'm playing great, it also means a lot of other guys are playing great. This is not a one-man show. I understand that, and I will not have that type of attitude.

    His growth will become more evident if he finds his team with the lead in a late situation and redeems himself by holding on to the ball and allowing the Panthers to pick up a division win in front of the home crowd. 

The Return of Jonathan Stewart

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    Jonathan Stewart will get his first game action of the season after spending the first half of the season on the PUP list. At best, the running game gets a tremendous boost and DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert are spared a few more carries per game. However, it should be noted that Stewart will most likely be eased into the game with Williams and Tolbert maintaining the majority of the workload. 

    If things go well for Stewart against Atlanta, he will be another weapon in Cam Newton’s arsenal who is capable of both running the ball and being a pass-catcher out of the backfield.

    It is too early to determine how effective Stewart’s presence will be in the Carolina offense, but if he stays healthy and productive, his return will be very well-timed, as the Panthers enter the second half of their schedule which will only become more difficult as the season progresses.

    A modest projection of Stewart’s production on Sunday: 10 rushes for 37 yards, two receptions for 16 yards and no scores.

Greg Hardy vs. Matt Ryan

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    Sure, this storyline should have been done following the conclusion of the final meeting between these two teams, but that may not be the case. The Carolina defensive line is a lot stronger than last year, and Greg Hardy has been key cog of the unit. 

    On the other side of the ball is a talented quarterback in Matt Ryan who can pick apart any team but has been on the short end of the stick this season as injuries have decimated his receiving corps.

    Where these two collide stems from exchanges each made following the end of their respective games a year ago, as outlined by isportsweb. To paraphrase, the statements both Ryan and Hardy said were in reference to getting off the other’s (expletive) deleted field. 

    While Ryan and the Falcons had the last laugh, as they clinched the division and a playoff spot, it is fair to say Hardy is not quite done with leaving an indefinite, if not vocal, impression on the Atlanta offense. The Falcons are reeling, but Hardy and his team want to send a strong message to their southern rival.

    That message could set the tone for the rest of the season, so for Hardy’s sake (and that of the Panthers), it had better be one that favors them.

The Secondary Will Be Put to the Test

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    As mentioned in the previous slide, Matt Ryan is great at finding receivers and picking apart defenses.  The Carolina Panthers secondary is young, but they have been playing at a high level, despite losing veteran Charles Godfrey to a season-ending injury. Quinton Mikell and Robert Lester have played well in his place.

    Additionally, the efforts of free safety Mike Mitchell and cornerback Melvin White have been outstanding.  All of these defensive backs have made the most of their playing time, and if they can limit one of the better passers in the league on Sunday, it will help them, as they prepare for the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Tom Brady and Drew Brees later in the season. 

    Carolina hasn’t really seen an elite quarterback this season. The only one close to fitting that definition has been Eli Manning. He had no answer for the Carolina defense, as he saw his New York Giants completely destroyed in Week 2. A case could be made for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, but he was unspectacular in a low-scoring 12-7 win.

    Keeping Ryan in check with a depleted receiving corps may not say too much, but the best quarterbacks in this league still find success and ways to win, despite less than desirable pass-catching options. The secondary will be making a big statement if they can be opportunistic and find ways of keeping Ryan off his game on Sunday.

Ron Rivera's Aggressiveness

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    Playing not to lose cost the Carolina Panthers a win in last year’s home meeting against the Atlanta Falcons. Much of that was attributed to the conservative play-calling of Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. 

    However, in recent weeks, Rivera has redefined himself as a more aggressive strategist, opting to go for it more often on 4th-and-short when the situation presents itself. Normally, this has been done when the Panthers have been in their opponents’ territory.

    There is no doubt that Rivera’s new style of decision-making will change against Atlanta, but it should be interesting to see how big a risk he will take on each series. The Falcons rank 21st in both passing and rushing defense, so there is a good chance, if Rivera sees a weakness in the Atlanta defense, he will not hesitate to expose it. 

    Carolina has not fared well against Atlanta in recent years, but with the way the defense has played, Cam Newton’s continued maturity and Rivera’s newfound boldness, this game could turn around the rivalry not only for the season but also for the next few years.

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