The Final Straw?

NFC Game Of The Week

Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons

Panthers: I’ve been so impressed with them this year especially after how much they struggled in 2016 after a 15-1 record, a division title and a Super Bowl appearance the previous year along with an MVP winner in Cam Newton. What’s made them such an improved team this year? First, the offensive line has handled their business up front and that was the biggest issue last season. It’s never a good sign when your quarterback is running around for his life and their defense got back to playing that punishing style of football and the secondary has been much improved in 2017, a year after the team decided not to sign Josh Norman to a long-term deal. When Cam is having fun on the field, that is when he’s at his best and each of his receivers has stepped it up after Kelvin Benjamin was traded to the Buffalo Bills. It also helps when you have such a reliable target over the middle in Greg Olsen. The Panthers have won three in a row since falling to the Saints in week 13 and they have wins over the Vikings who have been rolling this year, the Packers when they spoiled the return of Aaron Rodgers and just last Sunday on Christmas Eve, they had to come back and beat the Buccaneers, a game I called a trap game for the Panthers. The division title is still possible for the Panthers and they’ll need the Saints to lose to the Buccaneers and the Panthers need to beat the Falcons for that to happen.

Falcons: What a difference a year can definitely make. Around this time as the season was ending, they were champions of the NFC South, they were locked into the two seed in the NFC playoffs and it all went up from them for them. This year, they have been the model of inconsistency. Remember way back at the beginning of the year when they got off to the fast 3-0 start? Everything was clicking because they were winning close games and their defense was helping out as well. There have also been times this year when they’ve played down to their competition or they haven’t shown up. You just never know what to expect from them. Right now, the Falcons are 9-6 and hold the sixth seed right now in the NFC playoff picture with the Seattle Seahawks on the outside looking in with the same record, but the Falcons own the head to head tiebreaker after beating them back in November. When their offense clicks, nobody in the NFC can beat them and they have so many playmakers with Julio of course, Austin Hooper has had a nice season, Sanu and Gabriel both know their roles and when they have Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman running the ball, they’re a scary unit from an offensive standpoint. Their defense has shown the potential to be a good one all around, but there have been times when they have given up big play after big play. You can consider this a playoff game before the playoffs if you’d like and if the Falcons win this game, they are headed to Los Angeles more than likely for a game with the Rams for Wild Card weekend and even if Seattle wins and the Falcons hold on, Atlanta gets in because of the head to head tiebreaker.

Panthers Player To Watch: Kaelin Clay– With dynamic wide receiver Damiere Byrd on injured reserve, they have the perfect replacement in Kaelin Clay and he’ll need to step it up now in special teams and as another trusted target for Cam.

Falcons Player To Watch: Taylor Gabriel– I really like this Falcons receiving. Besides Julio, you have Sanu and Gabriel, two guys that both know their roles within this offense. They don’t have to be the go-to guys for Matt Ryan. Gabriel is the speedster in the slot for this offense.

Final Analysis: It has come down to this! Both teams are playing for something. With a Saints loss and if the Panthers win, the Panthers will be the NFC South champions and if the Falcons win this game along with Seattle losing to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, they will be in the playoffs as the sixth seed in the NFC. What more could you ask for to end a regular season? The Panthers need to run the football a bit more consistently to sustain long drives and take the pressure off Cam. The Falcons need to take better care of the football and not turn it over expecting to win games.

Prediction: Panthers 24 Falcons 17