After last season, perhaps you could be forgiven for confusing the Panthers with housecats. No longer.
The Panthers may only win five games this season, but they're going to make every single tilt they play an exciting one. That's chiefly due to Cam Newton, who for all his warts is light years ahead of where I thought he would be developmentally. With a solid secondary, en effective running back tandem and Steve Smith for Newton to throw to, the Panthers are light years away from last year's hot mess.
That makes them dangerous. The Falcons are reeling right now, punch drunk from tough losses to the Packers and Buccaneers and an awfully tight game against the Seahawks. At times, it's like watching half a football team ply its trade out on the field, which isn't pleasant for anyone. The fact that the Panthers are 1-4 doesn't matter. The Falcons can't afford to take Carolina lightly, and everyone involved with the team knows that.
The key will be to slow down a high-rolling offense and establish the run against a defense that can't stop it at all, but is very adept at rushing the passer. It'll be an uphill battle—every game is for Atlanta, these days—but an eminently winnable one.
After the jump, my big question, three smaller ones and a game prediction.
The Big Question
How Will The Falcons Slow Down Cam Newton?
You'll notice I didn't write stop, because you don't truly stop a quarterback like Newton. The same was true for Michael Vick in his Atlanta days. Teams can make him minimally effective, but there's still going to be a play or two each game at minimum where Newton blows up.
Let's take a quick look at how Newton has scored his 12 (!) touchdowns in five games. Seven of them have been through the air, and the remaining five have been on the ground. Newton's averaging and impressive 8.3 yards per passing attempt and 4.0 yards per attempt on the ground, and the Panthers consider him their goal-line back. He's definitely a dangerous weapon.
The key to putting the brakes on Newton is forcing him to turn the ball over, which is not impossible. Currently, Newton has six picks and a fumble on the year, and ball control is not his strong suit. The Falcons need to force him to make mistakes and make a concerted effort to take away Steve Smith, Newton's clear #1 binky.
Do that and this game becomes more than winnable. Even if the Panthers have a very formidable ground game overall, which they do.
Three Smaller Questions
Question 1: Just how destructive will Michael Turner be?
I ask because the Panthers are already no great shakes against the run, and they'll be missing a couple of key defensive pieces come Sunday. This is far and away the best matchup Turner's had this year, and it might be just what he needs to get going after stumbling and bumbling over the last three years.
To me, it's not a question of whether Turner will do well. He feats on poor run defenses, and the Falcons aren't likely to give him less than 20 carries unless they fall behind very early. No, it's just a question of whether Turner will run for 200 yards and three touchdowns and cave the Panthers' faces in, or whether he'll do something more pedestrian like run for 80 yards and have an effective but not amazing game.
My bet's closer to the former than the latter.
Question 2: How will the passing attack fare with Julio Jones out?
We've spent a lot of time discussing the passing game recently, so this will be a brief couple of paragraphs. You do have to wonder how sticking Harry Douglas on the outside and Kerry Meier in the slot is going to impact an attack that seems to be on its back, jack. Jones hasn't been a virtuoso by any means, but he's a big part of the offense already.
My guess is that against a solid Panthers secondary, the passing game just won't be the focus this time around. The Falcons will likely find some success on short routes to Meier and Douglas, and Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are always there to make things easier on Matt Ryan. This just isn't the most favorable matchup.
Question 3: Can the Falcons' offensive line contain the Panthers' pass rush?
The Panthers have eight sacks in five games, which doesn't jump off the page at you. That said, they get consistent pressure, and it would be a bad move to underestimate the Tealcats when the Falcons may be missing both Todd McClure and Garrett Reynolds.
Two guys in particular do a ton of damage to opposing offensive lines. That would be Charles Johnson, who already has four sacks and makes me depressed every time I think of him in Carolina instead of in Atlanta where we would have been best friends 4ever! Hardy is just a nasty pass rusher in his own right, replete with moves and ready to wreak havoc.
The Falcons would be wise to give help on the edges when they can and set Matt Ryan up to get rid of the ball quickly. Of course, a great game from Turner wouldn't hurt, either.
The Falcons will even their record after a bit of a shootout with the Panthers, reviving their moribund offense in the process. I say 31-21, Falcons.
What say you?