On Sunday, the Panthers will take on the Atlanta Falcons for the final time this season and try to establish their place as third wheel in the division; separating themselves from a downward trending Tampa Bay team.
The Panthers have grown as a team since their first meeting with Atlanta. The most noted improvements have come from rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who has shown much more maturity over the past few weeks. He looks more and more like a bona fide NFL star with each passing game.
For the Panthers, extending their winning streak to three games won't be easy. Atlanta remains a talented playoff caliber team that contained Newton very well the first time around.
Here are the key players that must play well for the Panthers if they are to pull off the upset.
In the NFL, it all starts with the quarterback and the Panthers are no exception. Rarely does a team beat a superior opponent when their own starting quarterback struggles.
Newton threw three interceptions against Atlanta the first time around and all were in their opponent's territory—two were made in the end zone. He'll have to better take care of the ball this time around and capitalize on every red zone opportunity that's afforded to him. The Falcons play stingy run defense so he very well may have to score with his arm.
The key will be a fast start for Newton. When he throws an interception early on, or misses an open receiver, it often results in inefficient play for the remained of the game. If Newton comes out sharp, hitting his deep routes with accuracy, then the Panthers will have a shot at this game.
Jordan Gross is the Panthers' Pro Bowl left tackle—and he'll have to play like it on Sunday. Gross has been an integral part of this offense's production all season. If he's not on his game, Atlanta's defensive ends will wreak havoc.
The first time around, the Panthers failed to protect Newton and he was pressured into making poor decisions and taking huge losses on sacks, repeatedly putting the offense in third and long situations.
While Gross wasn't chiefly to blame for the pressure, if he was able to handle John Abraham one on one, it would give offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski more flexibility to assist rookie Byron Bell on the right side versus Ray Edwards, who dominated the Panthers' offensive line in Week 6.
Michael Turner's success against the Panthers' defense is very well documented. He's had six consecutive games against this defense where he's managed either 100 yards rushing or a touchdown.
That being said, Terrell McClain and Sione Fua's injuries could not have come at a worse time. The two starting defensive tackles for the team went on IR earlier this week and the backups will need to step up.
Andre Neblett has played very well this season, but will need to be on the field much more this week. The question is 'Can he sustain his success while nearly doubling the amount of plays that he's involved in?'.
He'll need to in order for Carolina to slow down Michael Turner in the fashion they did with Tampa Bay's LeGarrette Blount last week.
Chris Gamble had a tough week against Tampa Bay, despite facing arguably the worst quarterback on the Panthers' 2011 schedule. Gamble had a few blown assignments, but generally plays well in man coverage, which he will be tasked with against the Falcons.
Gamble will need to eliminate Roddy White and prevent Julio Jones from burning this defense deep when he's matched up on either of the two talented receivers.
The cornerback slowed down White exceptionally well earlier in the season and it might be even easier this time. White, Jones, and slot receiver Harry Douglas have been limited participants in practice and are questionable for Sunday. While I fully expect them to play, they could very well be less than 100%.
Kicker Olindo Mare has had some costly misses this season, but in a game that's shaping up to be a close one, he could redeem himself.
The Falcons play very good red zone defense, so Mare could get multiple shots to either keep the Panthers in the game, or extend their lead. Either way, he'll have to avoid being the momentum killer, because this is a young team whose play easily sways with the momentum of the game.