Panthers vs. Falcons: Breaking Down Atlanta's Game Plan

Al BruceContributor IDecember 27, 2013

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 03:  Luke Kuechly #59 and Robert Lester #38 of the Carolina Panthers tackle Tony Gonzalez #88 of the Atlanta Falcons during play at Bank of America Stadium on November 3, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons welcome the Carolina Panthers into the Georgia Dome Sunday for a rematch of a Week 9 game that the Panthers won 34-10 in Charlotte.  

Thanks to its thrilling last-minute victory over New Orleans last week, Carolina can clinch its first division title in five years with a win over the Falcons.  As NFC South division champs, the Panthers would also secure a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.

On the flipside, Atlanta must dig deeper to find its motivation for Sunday's contest.  The Falcons' playoff hopes ended weeks ago, and they will not be the NFC South's first repeat division champion. 

In addition, it's unlikely that the opportunity to play the spoiler role will do much in terms of motivation for the Falcons because if Atlanta does beat Carolina, the Saints would be in position to win the division if they beat the Bucs later Sunday afternoon.

Therefore, it's more likely that the Falcons' motivation will come from the team's desire to compete like professionals the way they did against San Francisco and the fact that this will be the last game of tight end Tony Gonzalez's career.

Here's a look at four keys that the Falcons must execute as part of their game plan if they're going to send No. 88 off with a win Sunday.


Four Keys To a Week 17 Win for The Falcons

1. Treat the Game Like It's a Playoff Game

Carolina has a division title and a first-round bye riding on the outcome of this contest, so you can bet that the Panthers are going to come out with the kind of playoff-like intensity that they had last week against the Saints.  Atlanta's going to have to match that intensity in order to stay in this game early.

The best way to make sure that happens is for the Falcons to treat this game as if it's a home playoff game.

If Falcons don't come out of the gates fired up and ready to hit like they did last week, they could lose a Georgia Dome crowd that's probably going to feature a good number of Panthers fans who've made the trip down I-85.


2. Feed Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez

Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes may have given the Panthers some good bulletin-board material in Week 15 when he said that the Panthers secondary is probably the weakest link on Carolina's defense, via Will Brinson of CBS Sports, but practically, he has a point.

If you look at this Panthers defense on paper and on tape, you're probably going to figure that you're better off taking your chances against cornerbacks Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn than you are against linebacker Luke Kuechly, defensive end Charles Johnson and defensive end Greg Hardy.

Roddy White played his best game of the season last week against San Francisco, and he finally appears to be close to 100 percent after battling injuries for most of the season.  White didn't play when the Panthers beat the Falcons in Week 9, and Atlanta should make sure he gets involved this week.

Also, even though Gonzalez will probably see a lot of attention from Kuechly, the Falcons should give him every opportunity to go out with a couple of more dunks on the goal posts.


3. Eliminate Explosive Plays from the Panthers

San Francisco used a couple of explosive offensive plays to get back into the game against Atlanta in the second half of the Falcons' Week 16 loss, and Atlanta's defense has struggled to limit big plays all season.

If the Falcons are going to beat the Panthers, they cannot allow Carolina to gain over 30 or 40 yards on any one play because the best way to beat Carolina is to make them execute 12 to 15 plays a drive and then force field-goal attempts in the red zone.

Panthers receiver Steve Smith left Carolina's win over New Orleans with a knee injury and is highly doubtful for this week, as per John Breech of CBS Sports.  If Smith doesn't go, running back DeAngelo Williams and receiver Ted Ginn Jr. are probably Carolina's biggest big-play threats behind quarterback Cam Newton.


4. Win the Turnover Battle

This one almost goes without saying, but if you saw the Week 9 game between these two teams, you know how turnovers and near-turnovers changed the momentum in that game. 

Carolina scored its first touchdown after Kuechly intercepted Matt Ryan, and the Panthers put the game away when Florence got a pick-six off of Ryan a few plays after the Falcons defense couldn't recover a Panthers fumble.

If the Falcons lose the turnover battle like they did in Week 9, they're going to have a tough time getting a victory.



The Falcons proved that they don't plan on finishing their dreadful 2013 season with a whimper when they gave the 49ers a game last week, but fans shouldn't overreact to that performance the same way they shouldn't have overreacted to any of Atlanta's blowout losses.

This game is probably going to be a classic, hard-fought divisional contest, but Carolina should win it because the Panthers have the better team this year.