It's obvious why this is happening. The Falcons lost the Saints and the sporting world quickly took it as a sign that the Falcons were pretenders, that they can beat beaten by any ol' team at home. There's also the fact that the Saints need the Panthers to win, which is sparking significant discussion among Saints fans and the media, if you can in fact separate those two groups out.
It's an idea that snowballed further when the Vikings improbably beat the Eagles, and the old saw that anything can happen in the NFL lumbered to its metaphorical feet. I'll acknowledge that there's always a chance the Panthers win on Sunday, and the Falcons and their fans would be foolish to overlook that possibility.
That said, it's not going to happen. The Panthers are going to walk into the Georgia Dome and get their teal butts kicked up and down the field, and the Falcons are going to head home afterwards with a first round bye and home field advantage.
After the jump, find out why I'm exuding rare confidence.
1) The Falcons are a better team. So much better. Light years, really.
Let's take a quick look at some general stats here.
Total YPG (Offense)
Falcons: 340.4, 16th in the NFL
Panthers: 256.3, 32nd in the NFL
Total Points Allowed
Falcons: 278, 28th in the NFL
Panthers: 377, 9th in the NFL
Falcons: +12, 3rd in the NFL
Panthers: -7, 25th in the NFL
The only category the Panthers are close to the Falcons in is yardage allowed, where they're one rank above the Falcons, but they've allowed nearly 100 more points, so I consider that one hell of a wash at best. In the years the Panthers have been in existence as a franchise, I don't believe they've ever been worse than they are in 2010.
It's one thing to lose at home to a talented opponent by three points. It's another thing entirely to assume that inarguably the worst team in the NFL this season is going to waltz in, morph into a juggernaut and crush the Falcons. Again, there are no impossibilities in the NFL, but the Panthers would have to do something they haven't done all season: Play great football for four quarters.
I mean no disrespect to the Panthers, a proud team that is going to be a factor in the NFC South again sooner than later. But the fact that anyone can look at these two teams are currently constructed and come to the conclusion that the Panthers have a chance in hell to pull off this upset tells me there's an awful lot of Jiminy Cricketing going on out there.
2) The Falcons are still motivated.
Everyone talks about the Saints won't roll over for the Buccaneers, a team that has proven itself vastly superior to the Panthers, because they're still playing for the top seed in the NFC. You know who else is playing for the top seed in the NFC? The Falcons.
Motivation is a funny thing. Mostly analysts rely on a few soundbites and brief study on a team to come up with their psyche, and it's a rare thing to actually get the mental state of a team comprising dozens of players and coaches correct. The thinking for the Falcons is that they're either going to be full of doubt after losing to the Saints, or that they'll overlook the Panthers. There is not a shred of evidence to support that idea.
The Falcons have only lost back-to-back games twice in the three years Mike Smith has been coaching in Atlanta, and both instances were in 2009, when the Falcons were banged up and playing tough teams. They have never come off a loss and stumbled against a vastly inferior opponent in that three season span. Similarly, there's no brain wave scans that I'm aware of that tell me that Jonathan Babineaux rolled out of bed Thursday morning and said, "Gosh, I sure am full of doubt after losing to the Saints! Perhaps my self-doubt is so great that I shall suck against the Panthers!"
Did I mention they're playing for home field advantage in the playoffs? If you can't get motivated by that, I'm not sure what combination of electric shocks and shark tanks are necessary to do it.
3) The Panthers don't match up well against the Falcons
Ignore the psyches of both teams and even their numbers up to this point in the season. Just look at how these two teams match up.
The Panthers do one thing well on offense: Run. Down DeAngelo Williams for the season, they're heavily reliant on Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson to carry the load. Their passing attack is utterly dismal and represents virtually no threat, so teams know the run is coming. All. Game. Long.
The Falcons just so happen to be 12th in the NFL for opponent rushing yards, and they're capable of stopping Stewart and Goodson from running roughshod all over the Georgia Dome. They're less proficient against the pass, but Jimmy Clausen is prone to interceptions and bad decisions and the Falcons are opportunistic enough to take advantage.
On the flip side, the Panthers defend the pass reasonably well but are basically useless against the run. If Michael Turner can establish himself, the passing game opens up and the Falcons do what they did last time around on the road: Blast the Panthers.
Basically, their weaknesses don't match with our strengths in a remotely advantageous way.
I know some of you will be nervous that I've jinxed us, or that I'm displaying the same kind of hubris that led the gods to plow the Titanic into an iceberg made of liquid comeuppance. Heed me. The Falcons will have to collapse as a football team to lose this game.
It's not going to happen.