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Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: Preview and Pick
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers: Preview and Pick
The Atlanta Falcons were expected to be a contender for the Super Bowl this season but they have failed miserably as the team has been decimated by injuries. The Carolina Panthers are surprising the rest of the National Football League by playing tough defense and winning the games that they are supposed to win. If they can do it against the Falcons they will get the rest of the league to take notice.
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Odds
The NFL opening point spread for this game has the home team Panthers listed as (-7.5) point favorites which shows just how far that the Falcons have dropped of late. The betting public is starting to believe in the Panthers as over 56 percent of the early wagers are coming in on the home team and fading the Falcons. This line has yet to move but it deserves watching at many of the top rated online sportsbooks.
The Panthers haven't been above .500 since 2009, going 70 straight games without a winning record. A big reason for that is their inability to beat the teams they should beat. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Panthers are 16-12 against teams that entered the game with a losing record. Since the Panthers beat the Buccaneers, the Panthers avoided a .536 win pct against teams that entered the game with a losing record since 2009, winning just 15 of their 28 matchups.
The secret is Cam Newton. Newton was 20-for-24 on passes that traveled 10 yards or fewer downfield for 171 yards and two touchdowns on Thursday. During the Panthers' three-game winning streak, 55 of Newton's 75 attempts traveled 10 yards or fewer. This amazing turnaround will be on display against the Falcons this week in a big game.
The latest football betting trends for this game reveals that the Falcons are in a very difficult spot. The Falcons are 2-6 against the spread (ATS) in their last 8 games after accumulating less than 90 yards rushing in their previous game, 0-3-1 ATS in their last 4 games after allowing less than 150 yards passing in their previous game and 1-5-1 ATS in their last 7 road games. The Panthers are 4-1 ATS in their last 5 home games, 5-1 ATS in their last 6 against the NFC South and 6-1 ATS when playing a team with a losing record. The Panthers have the edge entering this division game against the beat up birds.
Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Pick
With plenty of time to go before the start of the regular season, I will wait to release my pick on this game until we get closer to game day.
Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter didn't single anyone out individually, but he certainly made it clear that a portion of the team's run-game issues can be attributed to poor blocking.
Last Sunday against the Cardinals, the Falcons managed just 27 yards on 14 carries. Quarterback Matt Ryan had the longest rush of 13 yards, while Steven Jackson managed just 6 yards on 11 carries in his return from a hamstring injury.
The team's dismal performance was preceded by an 18-rush, 18-yard effort against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It's no wonder the Falcons enter this week with the league's worst rushing offense, averaging just 62.4 yards per game. By contrast, NFL rushing leader San Francisco averages 153 rushing yards per contest.
"It's on all of us," Koetter said of the run-game woes. "We've got to give our backs a chance. If you're going to run the football, we've got to give them good design in the run game. We've got to give them good design of what the plays are. And, at the point of attack, we've got to move somebody.
"And that cannot only be the O-line, it could be the tight end, it could be the fullback. It could be a wide receiver at the point of attack on a DB. But we've got to give our backs a chance. Second thing is, we can't get behind. In the second half, that takes you out of your run game."
The Falcons had hoped Jackson would inject life back into the run game after he averaged 7.0 yards per carry in the season opener. Jackson was happy to return to the field, but was far from pleased with his showing. He was dropped for a loss on two of his first three carries. On those plays, it appeared as if tackles Lamar Holmes and Jeremy Trueblood lost their one-on-one matchups, resulting in loss yardage.
Koetter was asked to assess Jackson's performance coming off the injury.
"It's just not fair to say because he didn't really get a chance," Koetter said. "Steven's a proven player. He's a proven player in this league. That question would be best asked of him. He knows that himself better than anyone."
Koetter knows the Falcons have to get the running game going Sunday at Carolina to give the offense some balance. Statistics show they have had the most success running off right tackle, with an average gain of 5.2 yards in that direction.
But getting the running game started against Carolina won't be an easy task. The Panthers, behind linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, boast the league's second-ranked run defense, allowing just 79.3 rushing yards per game.
"They have two outstanding linebackers," Koetter said. "The leading tackler in the NFL a year ago in the middle linebacker (Kuechly), and Thomas Davis is playing the best that I've seen him."
Johnson told reporters he “100 percent” expects to play against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 9.
“I feel good. I plan on playing on Sunday,” Johnson said. “It was just sore. It’s getting better. Day by day it is getting better.”
Johnson was relieved to find out that the groin injury, which head coach Ron Rivera initially feared could be significant, was not too serious after an MRI revealed no tear.
“I had never pulled my groin before,” Johnson said. “It was a relief that nothing was really wrong with it, it was just a strain. I’ll be ready to play on Sunday.”
Johnson, who is from Georgia, flashed a big smile when asked about how excited he gets to play the Falcons, and he fully expects to be on the field when the Panthers host their division rivals from Atlanta.
“It’s big — not just for me, but for the whole group,” Johnson said. “We know how big this division game is. We are going to come out and try to play our A-plus game. I’m going to be trying to play the best game I’ve ever played. That’s my mentality.
“They (Falcons) bring it out of me a little bit, but I try to come out and play every game like that.”
To get the most out of the offense, the Panthers needed to get the most out of quarterback Cam Newton. Carolina achieved that in the last six games of the 2012 season, and it needed to continue.
That was the focal point of Mike Shula’s presentation to head coach Ron Rivera when he interviewed for the offensive coordinator position this offseason.
“Mike’s presentation was tremendous,” Rivera said. “He did a heck of a job showing me what our offense is capable of.”
Shula smiled and modestly downplayed that presentation when asked about it this week as the 4-3 Panthers prepare for the Atlanta Falcons. But he recounted his primary message during that meeting.
“Basically, the biggest thing was… offenses revolve around the quarterback for the most part,” Shula said. “How can we get Cam to continue to improve, which we thought he’s done over the course of his career, and then utilize the other guys?”
During Carolina’s current three-game winning streak, the offense has featured an improved Newton and a host of effectively utilized weapons functioning in a balanced attack.
Newton has completed 58-of-75 passes for 667 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions during this three-game stretch. He’s also run for 106 yards and two scores.
Shula – the Panthers quarterbacks coach from 2011-12 – noted improved consistency and decision-making from the third-year signal caller.
“When we watch him, he just looks a little more comfortable,” Shula said. “I think experience has a lot to do with it. Guys around him are all being more consistent, too.”
Added Rivera: “Mike and the staff have done a nice job developing the players around our quarterback.”
The offensive playbook the Panthers are using isn’t all that different from the one used under previous offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski – now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
“We’ve tried to go back to last year and just build on that and try to fine-tune the offense,” Shula said.
Obviously, the play caller is different, and Shula has made some changes, namely staying committed to utilizing the running backs in the running game. So far, Shula’s approach has been effective.
“He has done a good job cutting out some of the verbiage, cutting out some of the fringe plays and really focusing on our core specialty,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “We’ve been pretty balanced – that’s been a big thing for us.”
The Panthers are priding themselves on balance in 2013, and they like the new offensive identity they’ve established.
“I really do think the offense has an identity,” Rivera said. “We are going to run the ball and we are going to be physical off that. We are going to go play action and we are going to throw the ball vertical. I’m excited about where we are right now.”
While Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are rolling, the same can't be said for Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.
Newton and the Panthers will try to add to the Falcons' woes while earning a fourth consecutive win Sunday.
Carolina (4-3) is above .500 for the first time since going 12-4 in 2008, the year it most recently made the playoffs or finished ahead of Atlanta in the NFC South - during Ryan's rookie season. The Panthers have gotten there by scoring 30 or more points in each of the last three games.
Newton has a 77.3 completion percentage and a 130.3 passer rating during the win streak - both best in the NFL over the past three weeks - while throwing for 667 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He was 23 of 32 for 221 yards and two TDs last Thursday in Tampa Bay, and ran for a season-high 50 yards with another score in a 31-13 victory over the winless Buccaneers.
Carolina's last three opponents have a combined 4-18 record, and Atlanta (2-5) has lost four of five. That seemingly favorable stretch for the Panthers, however, is followed by matchups with San Francisco and New England, both currently 6-2.
"We just have to continue to keep meshing as a team, keep building off and keep getting momentum in these upcoming weeks because we are about to hit the meat of our schedule," Newton said. "We are going to need every single ounce of energy that we will have."
The Falcons haven't looked very energized, recording their lowest point total since the 2011 season in a 27-13 loss in Arizona last Sunday. Ryan threw four interceptions, one shy of a career high, and was sacked a season-high four times.
Atlanta, 0-3 on the road, was playing its second game since leading receiver Julio Jones' season-ending foot injury. Fellow wideout Roddy White has missed the past two games with hamstring and ankle injuries.
White's status for this contest is unclear. He has 24 catches for 370 yards and four touchdowns in his last three games against Carolina.
The Falcons were held under 300 total yards and 30 on the ground for the second straight game last Sunday despite the return of Steven Jackson from a hamstring injury. Jackson gained six yards on 11 carries, in part leading to Ryan throwing a career-high 61 passes.
"There's no doubt about it, we've gotta run the ball more effectively," Ryan said. "... I've gotta be more efficient as a passer to help our run game."
The Atlanta offense may struggle to have a better performance against the Panthers' stout defense. Carolina is among the league's best with 13.7 points and 301.4 yards allowed per game, and has the second-stingiest run defense (79.3 ypg).
"We feel like we are headed toward (being) a serious playoff defense," said defensive end Greg Hardy, who had one of Carolina's three sacks last week. "I feel like we're playing up to our potential, but there is so much potential in the room. We're not even close."
The Falcons, meanwhile, haven't given up fewer than 23 points in any game this season and have forced an NFC-low six turnovers. They've particularly struggled to stop the run lately, allowing 562 yards on the ground in the last four games and a season-high 201 in Arizona.
"We haven't been consistent in anything we've done in seven games," coach Mike Smith said. "That's the entire football team, the entire coaching staff, and we all take responsibility for it."
Atlanta is off to its worst start since going 1-6 to begin 2007 after opening 8-0 last year en route to a 13-3 record and the NFC championship game.
The Panthers dealt their division rival one of those losses in the last meeting, 30-20 in Charlotte on Dec. 9 to snap a five-game losing streak in the series.
Newton's career-long 72-yard run gave his team a 23-0 lead early in the third quarter, and he finished with a personal-best 116 rushing yards while passing for 287 and two touchdowns. Newton ran for a combined 202 yards and two TDs against Atlanta last year.
Ryan has totaled 1,031 passing yards and nine touchdowns in his last three games against Carolina.
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Roddy White is listed as questionable for Week 9's contest against the Carolina Panthers.
White did not practice on both Wednesday and Thursday due to a high ankle sprain that has hampered him all season and kept him out of action the last two games. He then practiced on Friday and is expected to be a game-time decision on Sunday.
For the season, White has just 14 catches for 129 yards without a touchdown.
Going back to 2001 the NFC South rivalry between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers has been relatively one-sided. Doubling up the Panthers win total, the Falcons have a comfortable 16-8 record in the divisional match up.
Before winning the final meeting of 2012, the Panthers had dropped five straight games to the Falcons.
Look for Carolina to make it two straight wins over their rival on Sunday.
At 2-5 the Falcons look a shadow of their former selves. A year ago the Falcons were a top seed in the NFC and finished 13-3, yet find themselves on the brink of playoff elimination at the halfway mark this year.
Carolina on the other hand is not exactly a Super Bowl contender in the eyes of most experts, however they are playing extremely good football right now. At 4-3 the Panthers are in striking distance in the NFC South and the Wild Card playoff alike. Cam Newton and the defense have been elite and will shoulder the load to carry this team as far as possible this season.
In case you forgot how bad things have been in Carolina lately, the last time they were above .500 was when they finished the 2008 season at 12-4 and made the playoffs. Five years since they had a winning record, that’s an eternity in the NFL. That also was the last time they found themselves ahead of Atlanta at the end of a season.
It’s the defense that is really impressive. In the offensive era of the NFL, the Panthers have built a defense that plays within the handicapping rules for today’s defenders and still makes it near impossible to score.
The Chiefs defense may get more credit, but it is the Panthers who are the number one scoring defense on the season, allowing just 96 points the entire season. Besides Kansas City no one else can claim to have allowed under 100 points this year.
Riding a three game win streak, the Panthers have been hot on both sides of the ball recently. Cam Newton has emerged as a top tier quarterback, completing nearly 80 percent of his passes with a quarterback rating of 130.3 during the win streak.
For the season Newton has taken better care of the ball while still making plays, spreading the ball around to his other receivers rather than forcing it to his stars. The results are 12 touchdown passes and just five interceptions.
The Panthers have also seen the benefit of Ted Ginn Jr. making a name for himself at receiver.
Look for the Panthers defense to stifle a Falcon offense that has not clicked at all this year and now will be without its top two pass catchers in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Matt Ryan needs help in Atlanta, and the Panthers will pounce on this beat up unit.
Defensively the Falcons have not been as scary as they had hoped and do not appear to be the ones who will slow down Cam Newton.
Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart is expected to make his season debut against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Stewart, who underwent surgery on both ankles during the offseason, hasn't suited up in almost a year. But the sixth-year pro told reporters he feels good after practicing in full pads on Wednesday.
"It felt good going out there, hitting the field full-speed with some contact. And just running plays with contact," Stewart told the Charlotte Observer. "It's different from running sprints, pulling sleds, even just walkthrough practices, to full pads. Today was a good step. It was fun. Just good to be back out there in the huddle."
Fortunately, the tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert has held its own in Stewart's absence, giving the Panthers the luxury to ease No. 28 back into the offense.
Williams is currently 10th in the NFL with 477 yards rushing while Tolbert has scored five touchdowns (three rushing) out of the backfield this season.
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White (hamstring) is questionable after returning to practice on Friday, but linebacker Stephen Nicholas (thigh) remains out. Tackle Sam Baker (knee), safety William Moore (hip) and defensive end Osi Umenyiora (knee) are also questionable.
The only Panther listed at anything other than probable is questionable linebacker Chase Blackburn (foot).