The Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons are in a winner take all game for the NFC South.
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A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers’ 17-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns at Bank of America Stadium:
What it means: Christmas came early for the Panthers (6-8-1) as they took over first place in the NFC South. Their win against Cleveland, along with Atlanta’s win at New Orleans, sets up a showdown next Sunday in the Georgia Dome between Carolina and Atlanta (6-9) for the NFC South title. One thing is clear: If the Panthers go on to repeat as division champion, there’s a good chance it won’t be pretty if their last two wins are an indication. This one certainly wasn’t a work of art. There were the usual mishaps in the red zone. There were costly fumbles and interceptions and countless replay challenges. But just as they did a week earlier with a two-point victory over Tampa Bay, the Panthers survived. Their third straight win makes the regular-season finale significant.
Stock watch: If there was any doubt about the health of quarterback Cam Newton, 12 days removed from suffering two small fractures in his lower back in an automobile accident, it ended quickly. Newton had a 4-yard scramble on the game’s second play and then kept the ball for a 15-yard run on the next. He had seven runs, including a 2-yard touchdown, by halftime. It was an up-and-down day for Newton. He completed 18 of 31 pass attempts for 201 yards and ran 12 times for 63. He made a poor decision midway through the third quarter when he threw an interception while scrambling out of control. He did a nice job of keeping the play alive and keeping his eyes downfield when he connected with running back Jonathan Stewart for a 9-yard touchdown with 7:07 remaining.
Stock watch II: Tight end Greg Olsen had 20 catches in his previous two games in a final big push for the Pro Bowl. He didn’t catch his first and only pass Sunday until about 9:42 remained in the fourth quarter.
Demons: The red zone and special teams seem like a weekly feature here. Maybe that’s because the Panthers are so bad in both areas. They failed to score a touchdown on their first trip inside the 20, thanks to a dropped pass by fullback Mike Tolbert and a bad pass by Newton to Kelvin Benjamin on third down. They made it into the end zone on their next trip despite a false start on the first play. As for special teams, an illegal block in the back negated a lengthy punt return and an illegal wedge (yes, don’t hear that often) on a kickoff forced the Panthers to start one drive from the 6.
Game ball: Stewart. Newton had a boneheaded interception that kept him from getting it and linebacker Luke Kuechly was part of a busted coverage that led to an 81-yard touchdown. So it goes to Stewart, who caught the game-winning touchdown and led the team in rushing with 122 yards on 24 carries. His 30-yard run with less than two minutes left sealed this one.
What’s next: The Panthers face the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Dec. 28.
The Week 17 showdown for the NFC South title between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers has been flexed from 1 p.m. ET on Fox to 4:25 p.m. on CBS this Sunday, the NFL announced late Monday night.
Gates at the Georgia Dome will open at 2 p.m. and parking lots will open at 11 a.m., the Falcons announced.
The 6-9 Falcons look to become the first team in NFL history to go undefeated in the division with a losing record. They defeated the Panthers, 19-17, in November in Charlotte and currently sit at 5-0 in division play. But the Panthers are in first place with a 6-8-1 record.
“I think that we will definitely get their best shot, just like we’re going to give them our best shot,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It ought to be a hell of a football game.”
In last year’s season finale at the Georgia Dome, the Panthers walked away with a 21-20 win while sacking Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan a franchise-record nine times. Carolina won the division title last season.
The NFC South, first established in 2002, has never had a repeat champion.
The Carolina Panthers gave Jonathan Stewart a much-deserved veteranâ€™s day off on Tuesday.
In the past four games, Stewart has carried 78 times for 437 yards, the most of any back in the NFL during that time.
The 78 carries represents the second most the injury-plagued back has had over a four-game stretch during his career, which began in 2008. He had 84 carries in Games 12-15 in 2010.
Stewart has spent most of his career sharing duties with DeAngelo Williams, the teamâ€™s all-time leading rusher. Williams has missed the past three games with a fracture in his right hand.
With Stewart in sweats, Williams took the first-team reps on Tuesday. Coach Ron Rivera was non-committal on whether Williams might take carries away from Stewart in Sundayâ€™s game against the Atlanta Falcons for the NFC South title.
All he said definitively was Williams still has things to work on before getting into a game.
“Heâ€™s got a cast on a broken hand,” Rivera said. “He makes a living running the football. He also has to hold onto the football, catch the football.”
In other words, thereâ€™s no need to change up the routine as long as Stewart is healthy.
Stewart, who missed three games with a knee injury, leads the Panthers (6-8-1) with 760 yards, his highest total since he had 761 yards in 2011 before ankle injuries kept him in and out of the lineup for two years. He also had the winning touchdown catch in Sunday’s 17-13 win against Cleveland with just over seven minutes remaining.
Luke Kuechly, LB, second Pro Bowl selection: There never was a doubt the reigning NFL Defensive Player would make the team for the second straight year. He leads the NFL in tackles with 145 and continues to draw raves as the best middle linebacker in the game. The only question about Kuechly is how many Pro Bowls heâ€™ll be selected to before the end of his career.
Who he beat out: San Franciscoâ€™s NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Both battled injuries this season, so that opened spots for other players, but not Kuechly. He would have made it regardless.
Greg Olsen, TE, first Pro Bowl selection: Long overdue. His career-high and team-high 82 catches are tied for the most by a tight end this season. His 981 receiving yards rank second among tight ends. If heâ€™s lacking in one department it is touchdowns, with only six. But few, if any, tight ends have been more valuable to a team or more consistent than him.
Who he beat out: Chicagoâ€™s Martellus Bennett, who was tied with Olsen and New Englandâ€™s Rob Gronkowski for the NFL lead in receptions by a tight end. He also had six touchdowns, like Olsen.
Thomas Davis, OLB, no Pro Bowls: Davis has put together three consecutive stellar and complete seasons that compare to any outside linebacker in the NFL. He has 96 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles. But because he plays in a 4-3 scheme and not a 3-4 scheme in which the outside linebacker typically collects double-digit sacks, he gets overlooked. Davis isnâ€™t asked to get sacks. Heâ€™s asked to make tackles and play in coverage. He does that exceptionally well. Standing next to Kuechly, the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, also gets him overlooked.
Who he should have beaten out: Kansas Cityâ€™s Tamba Hali. His six sacks are his lowest total since 2008 and five fewer than he had last season. His 57 tackles are 39 fewer than Davis.
A few thoughts on the Atlanta Falcons’ 30-14 win Sunday over the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
What it means: The Falcons, now 6-9, kept their postseason hopes alive by beating their bitter rival — on the road, no less. If they beat the Carolina Panthers next Sunday at home, the Falcons win the NFC South and host a first-round playoff game. They controlled their destiny entering the day, and Sunday took care of the hardest part of the equation.
Julio the Man: Give receiver Julio Jones credit for fighting through an oblique injury. Jones finished the day with seven catches for 107 yards and really sparked the offense. His 24-yard catch before halftime set up Matt Ryan’s 3-yard touchdown pass to Eric Weems that allowed the Falcons to take a much-needed 13-7 lead into the locker room. The Falcons needed Jones, just like they’ll need him to beat the Panthers next week.
Stock watch: The defense’s stock soared with this performance. Cornerback Robert McClain, thought to be the weak link in the secondary, jumped a route late in the game to come up with a crucial interception that helped the Falcons seal the game on Matt Bryant’s 32-yard field goal. Kemal Ishmael’s forced fumble and recovery to start the fourth quarter was the play of the game. And the Falcons had a season-high five sacks, getting after Drew Brees like they were unable to do in the season opener. The defense gave the Falcons a chance, which wasn’t expected. Remember, the Falcons entered Sunday as statistically the worst defense in the league. Osi Umenyiora closed the game with an 86-yard touchdown off a fumble recovery.
Game ball: Matt Ryan, with 322 passing yards, deserves consideration for playing with poise. Jones deserves consideration, too. But I’m giving my game balls to McClain and Ishmael. Give rookie safety Dez Southward credit, too, for holding Jimmy Graham out of the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter, but Ishmael forced the fumble and recovered it.
What’s next: The Falcons play their regular-season finale against the Panthers (6-8-1) next Sunday at the Georgia Dome. When the teams met on Nov. 16, the Falcons walked away with a 19-17 win in a game that featured plenty of scuffles.
The quad injury suffered by Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson during Sunday’s 30-14 against the Saints is not believed to be serious, and Jackson should be back in the lineup for next week’s NFC South showdown against Carolina.
Jackson was injured in the second quarter and ruled out early in the third quarter. He had four rushes for 9 yards, and caught a pass for 14 yards before exiting. He played 11 snaps.
Jackson’s injury did allow rookie Devonta Freeman to get more touches. Freeman, who played 24 snaps, responded with a 31-yard touchdown sprint in the third quarter that gave the Falcons a 20-7 lead. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter also showed a new wrinkle in splitting Freeman out wide as a receiver, which resulted in Freeman’s 36-yard reception that helped set up Matt Bryant’s 44-yard field goal.
The Falcons certainly want to incorporate Freeman into the offense, but Jackson’s role as a physical tone-setter continues to be an important part of the game plan. He’s also a veteran leader who has no issue with sharing the load with Jacquizz Rodgers and Freeman.
The Atlanta Falcons placed starting strong safety William Moore on injured reserve after he re-injured his right shoulder in Sunday’s 30-14 win over the Saints.
Moore previously separated the shoulder during a Week 4 loss at Minnesota. He was placed on IR with a designation to return and missed seven games.
Moore entered last Sunday’s game already nursing a torn plantar fascia in his right foot. He then suffered the season-ending shoulder injury.
Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan talked about finishing the season without Moore in the lineup. The Falcons (6-9) and Panthers (6-8-1) meet Sunday with the NFC South title and a trip to the playoffs on the line.
“Well, it’s disappointing, naturally, because William’s a big part of what we do and it’s exciting when he’s in there because he creates a lot of energy,” Nolan said.
With Moore out, Kemal Ishmael will reassume a starting role alongside free safety Dwight Lowery.
Julio Jones, WR, 2nd Pro Bowl selection: Jones is second in the league with 1,535 receiving yards and he has an average length of 10.04 yards per reception.
Who he beat out: No one, really. He was one of the top eight along with a group that includes Calvin Johnson, Antonio Brown, A.J. Green, and Dez Bryant, among others. It’s a solid group that Jones could be in front of right now, based on the way he’s performed as of late.
Devin Hester, KR, 4th Pro Bowl selection: Hester averages 13.3 yards per punt return, which is tied with fellow Pro Bowl selection Darren Sproles as the league’s best. Hester’s 62-yard punt return score against Tampa Bay helped him set a new NFL record for career return scores with 20. He should have had another against Arizona, but the NFL blew a face mask call on him.
Who he beat out: Bengals’ return man Adam Jones, who claimed to be a better return man than Hester when the teams met earlier this season. Jones averaged 11.9 yards per punt return and doesn’t have a score.
Matt Bryant, kicker: Bryant has made 28 of 31 field goals this season and he has made 38 consecutive field goals from inside 50 yards.
Who he should have beaten out: Stephen Gostkowski of the Patriots and Adam Vinatieri of the Colts. Yes, these are two very good kickers on playoff-bound teams, but Bryant should get the nod just for being so spectacular on a team that has struggled. When you’re winning and playing with leads, those kicks are a lot easier. Just my opinion. Not to mention Bryant’s longest field goal (54-yarder) is 1-yard better than both Gostkowski and Vinatieri.
The Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers will have a playoff berth on the line on Sunday as those two teams square off at the Georgia Dome with the home team the betting favorite at the sportsbooks.
Carolina enters the final week of the regular season atop the NFC South at 6-8-1 SU, with Atlanta at 6-9 SU in second place – meaning the winner of Sunday’s game wins the division and the loser misses the playoffs altogether.
The Falcons topped the Panthers 19-17 in their first meeting of the season on November 16, but they failed to cover the spread as 2.5-point road favorites in that game. Carolina is 4-1 ATS in the last five games between the teams.
The Atlanta Falcons currently sport a record of 6-9, and have posted a corresponding betting slate of 7-8 ATS. The Carolina Panthers are 6-8-1 and 7-8 ATS. Betting totals have seen the Atlanta Falcons post a 6-9 over under record this season, while the Carolina Panthers have gone 8-7 against the number.
– How Carolina Panthers vs Atlanta Falcons Stats Matchup
The game also pits Atlanta’s No. 10-ranked offense, averaging 25.2 PPG, against a Panthers defense that ranks No. 22 this week at 24.73 PPG. The Falcons aerial game is averaging 288.53 yards per game, more than the Panthers secondary allows through the air, 228 YPG per game.
In comparing defenses, the Carolina Panthers own the league’s No. 17-rated front 7 in terms of stopping the run, allowing 109.29 yards per game when on the road. Atlanta, on the other hand, rates No. 24 this week in generating rushing yards at home.
– Carolina Panthers vs Atlanta Falcons Betting Odds Trends
Carolina is 2-5 ATS in its last 7 games
Carolina is 3-6-1 SU in its last 10 games
Carolina is 3-7 ATS in its last 10 games on the road
Carolina is 1-4-1 SU in its last 6 games on the road
Atlanta is 8-17 SU in its last 25 games
The total has gone UNDER in 8 of Atlanta’s last 11 games
Atlanta is 1-4 SU in its last 5 games at home
Atlanta is 1-4 ATS in its last 5 games when playing Carolina
While most six-win teams have turned their attention to next year, the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons surprisingly enter Week 17 with everything on the line.
These NFC South rivals are set to go toe-to-toe for the title in the NFL’s weakest division, with Sunday’s winner advancing to host a playoff game and the loser going home.
“It doesn’t matter how you get there – you just have to get in,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “We have a game at home and for us, if you win, you’re in. Obviously this year has shaken out a lot different than any other year I’ve been a part of in our division. But even saying that, it doesn’t matter. We are where we are, and we’re excited about our chances.”
The Falcons (6-9) remained alive in the race by winning 30-14 at New Orleans last Sunday, their first victory in three weeks. They sit one-half game behind the Panthers (6-8-1) and need to win Sunday to clinch the division, while Carolina would clinch with a win or tie.
The Panthers had taken three straight in the series before falling 19-17 in Week 11. Carolina won 21-20 on Dec. 29 to snap a five-game skid in Atlanta and clinch the 2013 division title.
The last team to make the playoffs with a losing record was Seattle (7-9) in 2010.
“We’re in a great position,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “We have a chance to do something that’s never happened in the NFC South and that’s (win) back-to-back division titles.”
The Panthers went 11-1 down the stretch last season, and they appear to be coming together at just the right time again. Carolina gave up an average of 29.0 points during a six-game losing streak before winning all three games this month, a stretch in which it outscored opponents 77-40.
The Panthers are 14-3 in December since Rivera took over in 2011, the second-best record in the NFL during that time behind New England (15-2).
“There was a two-month stretch where we didn’t win. But you have 16 games, and every team’s road is different. Our road has been difficult,” All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly told the team’s official website. “We just had to tweak a couple things and by the time December rolled around, we were a team that was ready to roll. We got hot at the right time. We just have to keep rolling now.”
Carolina’s recent success is due in part to a healthy Cam Newton, who is starting to regain his form after dealing with ankle and rib injuries earlier this year. The two-time Pro Bowler missed the opener and also sat out a Week 15 victory over Tampa Bay just days after an automobile wreck left him with two fractures in his lower back, but he returned for last Sunday’s 17-13 win over Cleveland.
Newton threw for 201 yards with a touchdown and an interception, adding 12 carries for 63 yards and another score. He has two rushing TDs in his last two games, matching his total from his first 11.
Jonathan Stewart has also provided a huge boost with an NFL-leading 437 rushing yards over the last four weeks. He missed three games earlier this year with a knee issue, but the oft-injured back figures to carry the load again with DeAngelo Williams dealing with a broken right hand.
“Stew is hitting the holes, making the right reads and the offensive line is blocking their (butts) off too,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “He’s a guy that has had opportunities during his career, but has had some ups and downs with injuries. Now he is getting his chance to shine and making the most of it.”
The Falcons also have plenty to be excited about after getting Julio Jones back last week after a one-game absence due to a hip injury. Jones had seven catches for 107 yards against the Saints, giving him 28 receptions for 555 yards over a three-game stretch.
Jones has racked up 1,535 receiving yards, second in the league, and ranks third with a career-best 100 catches.
“Obviously he’s been hurting the last couple of weeks and for him to gut it out, I think that speaks volumes about his great toughness but also showcases what a stud he is,” Ryan said. “When he’s out there he’s making plays that a lot of other people aren’t capable of making.”
Atlanta placed safety William Moore on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, and running back Steven Jackson (quad) is uncertain to be available. The Falcons are averaging 95.7 rushing yards to rank 24th in the NFL, but they’re 5-1 when they run it at least 25 times.
Aside from a postseason berth, Atlanta’s Mike Smith could be coaching for his job after putting together back-to-back losing records. The Falcons went 4-12 last year after five consecutive winning seasons.
“I know that’s a subject that everybody wants to talk about,” Smith said. “As I said four or five weeks ago, and I hope this is the last time I have to answer it, I’m going to prepare just like I’ve done for the seven years that I’ve been here. My focus is on winning football games and winning the next football game and I’m going to continue to do that until (owner) Arthur Blank tells me differently.”
*Keys to the game: Win and youâ€™re in, albeit as a seven-win team hosting what will, at worst, be a 11-win visitor in a first-round playoff game next week.
The Falcons are taking care of the ball, and QB Matt Ryan has only three interceptions in six home starts against the Panthers. The starting skill spots werenâ€™t set as of mid-week with RB Steven Jackson sitting out Wednesdayâ€™s practice and WR Julio Jones (hip) likely to be a game-time call.
That could push the pendulum to the Panthers. QB Cam Newton (back) still isnâ€™t fully healthy, but the Panthersâ€™ mishmash blocking unit is jelling and RB Jonathan Stewart enters with an average of 117.9 rushing yards in his past three games.
If Jones does play, Atlanta can go to an aerial attack for which the Panthers have no real answer. WRs Roddy White and Jones had 14 catches for 133 yards in last monthâ€™s meeting, a 19-17 Atlanta win, but neither caught a pass of more than 19 yards.
*Matchup to watch â€” Panthers LB Luke Kuechly vs. Falcons running backs: Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman and Jackson are in the mix for carries. Kuechly, who had two passes defensed and 11 tackles in the first meeting, recorded 11 total tackles and an interception in the teamsâ€™ two games in 2013.
*Player spotlight â€” Falcons S Kemal Ishmael: Drafted with one of Atlantaâ€™s three seventh-rounders, the rookie replaced former Pro Bowl S William Moore (injured reserve) and is more than holding up. Last week, he made the game-changing play against Saints TE Jimmy Graham, stripping the ball at the goal line. He intercepted Newton in the Week 11 game.
*Fast facts: Carolina won three of the past four meetings. â€¦ Ryan has four consecutive 300-yard games and owns four of the franchiseâ€™s five 4,000-yard passing seasons.
The Panthers have just two injuries heading into the NFC South title game. Linebacker A.J. Klein (ankle) is questionable and running back DeAngelo Williams (hand) is probable. Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (oblique) and running back Steven Jackson (thigh) are questionable, but Jackson looks unlikely to play. Cornerbacks Robert McClain (illness) and Josh Wilson (hamstring) are also questionable for Atlanta.