When the 2-3 Atlanta Falcons host the 1-4 Carolina Panthers on Sunday it will be a battle between two teams in different frames of mind. Despite Carolina's poor record, the Panthers have been encouraged thanks to the play of rookie quarterback Cam Newton and their ability to keep games close.
Atlanta had huge expectations coming off a 13-3 campaign, but things haven't gone according to plan as the Falcons have already equaled their lost total from last season. Even so, the Falcons are just two games out in the NFC South and have plenty of time to make up ground.
The Falcons are past the point where they can take opponents lightly, but I doubt they would take Carolina lightly, even if they had the luxury. The Panthers have yet to lose by more than a touchdown, so this should be a close matchup that could go either way.
Where: Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
When: Sunday, Oct. 16 at 1 p.m. EDT
Watch: FOX; FOX Charlotte (Carolina) and FOX 5 (Atlanta)
Listen: WBT 1110 AM (Carolina) and WQXI 790 AM (Atlanta); Sirius XM Satellite Radio: XM Internet 873 (Carolina) and XM 226 (Internet 862, Atlanta)
Betting Line: Atlanta Falcons (-4)
What's at Stake?
Although you can't discount anything at this point, the Panthers likely aren't going to the playoffs this season. With that said, they are still trying to build for the very near future and don't seem to be very far off from contending for a postseason position. Because of that, they'll leave everything they have on the field.
The Falcons, on the other hand, were penciled in by nearly every expert as a playoff team prior to the season, so there is plenty of weight on their shoulders at the moment. There is no reason to panic at this point, but things would become very uncomfortable at 2-4. Atlanta has to believe that it needs to win a game it should win on home turf.
Panthers' Injury Report
Out: LB Omar Gaither (knee), LB Thomas Davis (knee—out for season), LB Jon Beason (Achilles—out for season)
Probable: TE Jeremy Shockey (concussion), DB Chris Gamble (concussion)
Falcons' Injury Report
Doubtful: WR Julio Jones (hamstring)
Questionable: DL John Abraham (hip), DB Chris Owens (concussion), DB William Moore (shoulder), C Todd McClure (knee)
What They're Saying
On the surface, the Carolina Panthers would seem to be having a disappointing season at 1-4, but every loss has been within seven points. Because of that, head coach Ron Rivera is optimistic things will turn around soon, according to Scott Fowler of the Charlotte Observer.
"We believe it's going to get better," Rivera said. "We believe when it turns, it's going to be really good. And it is about believing."
"We have the opportunity to build something very special here. ... We're growing and we're getting better and that's what it really gets down to. ... I'd like to do it faster, sooner rather than later, but unfortunately we haven't figured that out yet."
Things aren't quite so optimistic in Atlanta as the 2-3 Falcons are beginning to fall further down the AFC South standings. One person who has caught a lot of flak for Atlanta's struggles has been offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey as seen in this article by Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Mularkey dismissed the adjustments theory, saying, “That’s the outside sources who would say that.” (I would be the outside source here.) He then pointed to penalties and breakdowns, not play-calling, as reasons for the scoring drop.
“The general public and yourself would not know that unless you studied film, knew what the game plan was and knew what was happening in the first half and not the second half,” he said.
Panthers Player to Watch: QB Cam Newton
There's no need to get creative with this bullet point because the key to Carolina's success is undoubtedly rookie quarterback Cam Newton. Much to the surprise of everybody, Newton looks to already be one of the league's best quarterbacks and is Michael Vick-esque in his dual-threat ability.
Even though Newton has played superbly, the Panthers have managed just one win. So it stands to reason that they would have no chance if Newton turns in a mediocre performance. If Newton can exploit Atlanta's suspect secondary, though, then the Panthers have a great shot at the upset.
Falcons Player to Watch: WR Harry Douglas
With rookie wide receiver Julio Jones highly unlikely to play with a hamstring injury, somebody on Atlanta's receiving corps has to step up in order to take some pressure off the likes of Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. It looks like that player will be slot receiver Harry Douglas.
Douglas hasn't been terribly productive over the course of his career and he has just 11 catches so far this season, but he has never been given a featured role. Douglas is sure-handed and quick so he could certainly give the Panthers reason to worry on underneath routes and open up things for White over the top.
Key Matchup: Steve Smith vs. Atlanta Falcons Secondary
The Atlanta Falcons secondary has faced the second most pass attempts in the league this season and there is good reason for that. Atlanta has struggled mightily in pass defense and it may be the biggest reason why it is only 2-3. The Falcons have had tough matchups, but even Tarvaris Jackson of the Seattle Seahawks had a big day against them.
It's no secret that Carolina's main target is Steve Smith. He is second in the league with more than 600 receiving yards and has essentially come back from the dead. No secondary has been able to adequately contain him to this point, so the Falcons will absolutely have to commit extra defenders to his side of the field.
On the Hot Seat: S Thomas DeCoud
While it's difficult to blame any one player for the shortcomings of Atlanta's secondary thus far, the weakest link seems to be safety Thomas DeCoud. His season got off to a very ominous start as he dropped two interceptions against the Chicago Bears, and things have only gotten worse from there.
Missed tackles have been one of the secondaries biggest issues with DeCoud being the main culprit. He was responsible for Green Bay Packers wide receiver James Jones' 70-yard touchdown on Sunday night as he couldn't wrap him up. If these tackling problems continue then the Falcons will have to find an alternative option.
Falcons 28, Panthers 27