It used to be that playing the Panthers was a cause for concern. The Falcons are 18-12 lifetime against the former expansion franchise, but it was just last November that the Panthers put a 28-19 hurting on our much beloved team.
Of course, these cats are a shell of their former selves. Gone are the good version and bad versions of Jake Delhomme, the terrifying explosiveness of Steve Smith and a defense that held it all together. They've been replaced by a quarterback carousel that features the awful Jimmy Clausen, a rapidly aging version of Smith and a still-competent defense that can't possibly hold the entire team together anymore. It's a sad state of affairs.
But this is the NFL, and the Panthers are not just going to roll over, though they might like to. The Falcons will have to play four quarters to beat them and pick up their 11th victory of the season, and as with any other game, there are matchups that must be exploited.
Join me after the jump and suspend your disbelief. This is going to be a game worth watching.
Michael Turner vs. Panthers Defense
The Panthers' passing defense is stout, ranking eighth in the league in yardage and allowing a 15/15 TD/INT ratio. I don't doubt Mat Ryan's ability to make things happen, but it would be irresponsible to suggest he could do so without any help.
Enter Michael Turner. The Panthers' rush defense is only 25th in the league in terms of yardage allowed, and they're tied for fourth in touchdowns allowed. Turner's been on a roll of late, stopped by the Buccaneers by a combination of sheer force of will and weather, and he'll be looking to turn in a big game against the weaker Panthers.
I'm confident he can do it.
Jonathan Stewart vs. Falcons Defense
On the other side of the coin, there's Stewart. The fearsome two-headed rushing attack that featured the bruising Stewart with the agile DeAngelo Williams ended earlier this year, when Williams went on injured reserve. It's all on Stewart now.
He's the only fearsome asset the Panthers have. Steve Smith and David Gettis are talented receivers, but there's little they can do with inept quarterback play bringing them down. It's up to Stewart, a truly talented back in his own right, to make things happen against the Falcons front seven.
Fortunately for the good guys, the Falcon's run defense is as stout as a whale's backside. Stewart will make things happen, but it shouldn't be enough to ruin Atlanta.
Falcons vs. Themselves
The Falcons aren't going to come into this game believing a win is their entitlement. Mike Smith would chew more ass than Duke Nukem on a planet of gum-men, and I get the feeling nobody likes being yelled at by that guy. So that's out of the question.
But the Falcons have shown a frustrating tendency to open the gates, if only a little bit, and let teams come storming back. There's no guarantee they're going to flip a switch and destroy the Panthers, no matter how inept they are, and I would hope that they'd be aggressive until they've got a truly huge lead. Anything less is nerve-wracking.
Don't forget that the Panthers have that quality pass defense, as several readers mentioned yesterday. Mistake-ridden football is a good way to blow even the easiest games.
Falcons Special Teams vs. Panthers
After looking atrocious earlier this year, the special teams unit has caught fire in recent weeks.
Eric Weems is crushing it on returns, Matt Bryant is hitting everything in site and Michael Koenen....isn't terrible. That will serve the Falcons well, because getting a short field and preventing the Panthers from doing the same is always key. Especially since the Panthers are pretty well exhausted if they have to go more than 20 yards.