The Falcons began the season as one of the favorites to represent the NFC in this year's Super Bowl due to a dominant 13-win season that ended in a playoff loss to Green Bay. The problem is that the 2010 momentum has not yet carried over into this year for the 2-3 Falcons.
The Carolina Panthers do not look anything like they did last year, either. While they come into town 1-4, they have gone toe-to-toe with three playoff teams from 2010, including the Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, and the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
Cam Newton has his offense performing at the elite level that Falcons fans are used to seeing out of their star QB, Matt Ryan. However, the defensive side of the ball leaves plenty of room for improvement, with the Panthers ranking 18th and the Falcons slightly lower at 24th.
These are two surprisingly evenly matched teams looking to turn the season around at the other's expense. And if that isn't enough to get you to tune in, remember that these two NFC South rivals just do not like each other.
It seems as if each year the Panthers are dismantled by the injury bug.
Right on schedule, the team has had to cope with the losses of Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and Ron Edwards for the rest of the year. The silver lining is that they have had time to work in young talent to gain valuable experience as replacements until the veterans return in 2012.
Enter the Atlanta Falcons, who were hit insanely hard by injuries last week.
According to NFL.com, the Falcons had starters at defensive end, defensive tackle, tight end, safety, center, guard and both wideouts who couldn't participate in full practice on Wednesday.
I admit that some of those not practicing were only nicked up, like 35-year-old Tony Gonzalez (elbow), but it has to affect practice intensity when C Todd McClure (knee), DE John Abraham (groin), S William Moore (neck), DT Jonathan Babineaux (knee) and Pro Bowl WR Roddy White (knee) don't play.
And I haven't even mentioned that Julio Jones, Atlanta's newest deadly weapon, won't be suiting up to play Sunday at all.
The Panthers are "relatively" healthy, with only one starter missing Wednesday's practice. And Jeff Otah has a pattern of resting his back during the week so he is fresh on Sunday. This is not a concern.
Health Advantage: Panthers
The 2010 Atlanta Falcons offense was so balanced that it was next to impossible to stop them in a game-winning situation. That helped Matt Ryan lead the NFL in fourth-quarter comebacks. Adding the explosive Julio Jones should have made them even more dynamic this year, yet Ryan only has 13 passes over 20 yards.
Tom Brady leads the league with 30 such big passes. Cam Newton is breathing down his neck with 29.
Carolina's No. 5 offense is averaging over 23 points, 312 yards passing and 117 yards on the ground. Atlanta's run defense has been fairly stout, only giving up 89 yards a game. The pass defense is quite a different story, giving up nearly 300 yards per game.
The Falcons have to be concerned with how they plan to slow down Steve Smith, who is averaging 22 yards per catch and over 125 yards a game.
The Falcons No. 19 offense will have to counter with a strong running game and a healthy dose of Tony Gonzalez, especially after the way TE Jimmy Graham's dominance (8 catches for 129 yards) keyed the Saints victory last week. Roddy White is always productive, but missing the speed of Julio Jones may be too much for the Falcons to overcome if Carolina can turn this game into a shootout.
Big Play Edge: Panthers Offense
Once again, these are two evenly matched teams.
Both teams want to get the taste of losing out of their mouths. Both teams are considered stronger on the offensive side of the ball and each team's defense is giving up an average of 26 points per game.
Additional motivation may be added due to players wanting to play well in the return to their home state of Georgia. Cam Newton and Charles Johnson (who Atlanta nearly signed a few weeks ago) are the biggest names that come to mind.
The deciding factor in the intangible department is the Georgia Dome. It is extremely loud, due to the Falcon fans in attendance knowing how they affect the visiting team's snap count.
This is more than home field advantage for the Falcons. Matt Ryan does not lose here. Atlanta must be careful not to look ahead to next week's trip to battle the 5-0 Detroit Lions, though.
Intangibles Edge: Falcons
The Panthers lost 14 games last year. Two of them were to the Atlanta Falcons.
By a combined score of 62-20.
This week, the Panthers get another opportunity to show the NFC South and the NFL that last year's worst team in the league has a few scores to settle.
They are young, so inexperience and drive-killing penalties are still a challenge. But they are explosive, versatile and becoming more of a threat each game.
In the Georgia Dome, Atlanta will have no answer for the Panthers' balanced attack. Both running and passing will be effective. The Carolina D will bend, but not break.
It will be a hard-hitting contest, and very entertaining, but eventually Steve Smith will find the seams and take over the game.
The way I see it: Carolina 34-24
Check out my post game analysis Monday morning...