The Panthers won the first meeting on Sept.28 in Charlotte, 24-9. The Panthers' defense was the story of that day, as it held Falcons QB Matt Ryan to 27-of-41 completions for 158 yards and no touchdowns.
It allowed contained Michael Turner, who was then the NFL's leading rusher, 56 yards and no touchdowns on 18 carries.
Panthers QB Jake Delhomme had his best game of the season, going 20-of-29 for 294 yards and two scores. Tailbacks Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for 109 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries.
The Panthers were still working through their penalty issues, but the defense almost always picked up the slack from those penalties.
Carolina also had home field advantage.
This time the Falcons have home field advantage, where Michael Turner has scored eight of his nine rushing touchdowns. Turner also averages half a yard more per carry at the Georgia Dome than away from it. The Panthers' rush defense, despite being ranked only 17th in the league, has only allowed two rushers to gain 100-plus yards in single game. Neither of those backs is Turner.
Matt Ryan completes 67.5 percent of his passes at home—13 percent better than he is on the road. He's also thrown for 145 more yards, averages 3.7 more yards per play, is much less mistake-prone, has been sacked 10 times less (the offensive line is obviously far better, too), and has a passer rating 38 points higher at home than on the road.
But the Panthers' pass defense averages only 185.4 yards allowed. That matchup is more or less a draw. But if I had to give an edge to one, I'd give it to the Panthers' D.
Atlanta's defense is giving up yards points per game at home this season. That has to rank near the bottom of the league. To boot, only two of the Falcon's home opponents, the Broncos and Saints, were any good offensively.
Even more importantly, the Falcons' run defense ranks 22nd in the league. That probably won't go over well against a Panthers run offense that now ranks sixth in the NFL (133.6 yards per game) after combining for 454 yards and four touchdowns against the Raiders and Lions in the past two weeks.
Granted, Oakland and Detroit have crapshoot run defenses, but the Falcons' rush defense isn't much better.
Falcons DT Grady Jackson, who is pivotal in his team's rush defense, is questionable with a knee injury. DE John Abraham, who is a key figure in Atlanta's pass defense with 11 sacks (tied for third in the NFL), is questionable as well with a neck injury. Neither player practiced yesterday.
If Panthers QB Jake Delhomme is going get back into his rhythm for this stretch run to end the season, this week will be his best chance to do so. The Falcons' pass defense ranks 22nd, like their rush defense.
Receiver Steve Smith, with an extra gear of speed this week due to the artificial turf in the Dome, should be Delhomme's favorite target against an underrated secondary. Smith has 40 receptions for 685 yards and four touchdowns this season.
However, he only has 11 catches for 191 yards and no touchdowns away from Bank of America Stadium. He does have a slightly better first-down percentage on the road, though.
Fellow receiver Muhsin Muhammad should use his size (and the extra speed the turf will allow him) to work the underneath routes.
Atlanta's cornerbacks are largely inexperienced, with only 27 starts between them (one has only six starts in his first year as a starter). But their safeties are both experienced, solid players.
Erik Coleman, who is in first year with the Falcons after playing his first four years with the Jets, leads the Atlanta secondary with 58 tackles, two forced fumbles, and three interceptions.
The Panthers have the edge in special teams. Carolina's Mark Jones has done better returning kickoffs than Atlanta's Jerious Norwood, and Jones also trumps the Falcon's Adam Jennings in punt returning.
Panthers kickoff specialist Rhys Lloyd leads the NFL in touchbacks with 19. Lloyd also has the Panthers second in the NFL in average yards per kickoff, at 68.8. All of this indicates that the Panthers should have better field position.
Falcons placekicker Jason Elam is 21-of-23 in field goal tries on the season, with a long of 50. Panthers placekicker John Kasay is 18-of-19 on field goal attempts, with a long of 50 as well. Both kickers are perfect on extra points. Carolina should have a slight edge if the game comes down to a last-second field goal.
Carolina punter Jason Baker averages 6.2 yards per punt more than Atlanta punter Michael Koenen, his long is three yards better, and he has landed one more punt inside the 20. This also foreshadows a possible advantage for the Carolina in field position.
The Falcons are 4-1 at home. But only one of Atlanta's opponents at the Georgia Dome has a record of .500 or better—the Broncos, at 6-4.
For the first time in an eternity, every single Panthers player is healthy and should play.
The fact that the Falcons are 4-1 at home is mostly misleading because of their strength of schedule. The Panthers' strengths match up well with the Falcons' weaknesses, but not the other way around. The Panthers should win, against all "odds".
The Panthers lead the all-time series, 3-2.
The Panthers have scored 80 points, the Falcons 72.
The Panthers have 83 first downs, the Falcons 82.
The Panthers have gained 1358 yards, the Falcons 1549 yards.
The Panthers' time of possession is 31:41, the Falcons' 28:19.
The Panthers are perfect on field goal tries, the Falcons are 10-of-12.