Atlanta (11-1) is usually led by an offense that ranks seventh in the league in scoring at 26.4 points, it was a superb defensive display that helped the team pull out a 23-13 win over New Orleans last Thursday. MVP candidate Matt Ryan completed 18 of 33 passes for a season-low 165 yards and touchdown, but the Falcons intercepted Drew Brees five times to lock up their second division crown in three seasons.
The Falcons, who sit 2 1/2 games ahead of San Francisco in the conference standings, could potentially clinch a first-round bye and also home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win Sunday coupled with a few unlikely scenarios. While it's hard to make a case against the Falcons right now, their recent postseason efforts are hard to overlook. Atlanta hasn't won a playoff game since 2004, going one-and-done in its last three appearances. The Falcons have had their way with the Panthers (3-9) of late, scoring at least 30 points in winning each of the last five meetings. Ryan has 11 touchdowns to two interceptions for a 103.9 passer rating during the run, and Michael Turner is averaging 99.4 rushing yards with seven total touchdowns.
The first meeting of the season, though, came down to the wire. Atlanta drove 77 yards in five plays to set up Matt Bryant's 40-yard field-goal with five seconds remaining, lifting the Falcons to a 30-28 victory in Week 4. The loss at the Georgia Dome in September, was one of seven Carolina defeats by six points or less. The Panthers came up short again last Sunday, falling 27-21 at an emotional Kansas City team that played despite the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide a day earlier.
Cam Newton continued his impressive play with 232 passing yards and a season-high three touchdowns, and ran seven times for another 78 yards. Newton has eight total TDs - two rushing - and no interceptions over his last three games. Although Newton is playing well, the Panthers have allowed an average of 30.0 points in their last three losses. Things aren't about to get any easier after placing defensive end Antwan Applewhite and free safety Sherrod Martin on injured reserve Tuesday.
Look for Ryan to pick apart the Carolina secondary himself, and Michael Turner should have a nice day on the ground. The Falcons have way too much firepower and should cruise in a high scoring contest.