As a brief note, it's shaping up to be a busy holiday season, so this is a little shorter than usual. I hope you're not all crushed.
Remember the beginning of the season? It 'twas the season in which people make absolute jackasses out of themselves attempting to predict how the divisions will shake out, and over the last few seasons, no division has been more difficult to figure out than the NFC South. Yet the predictions were dutifully trotted out, and I heard a lot about how the Panthers were going to roll over the competition, with the Bucs and maybe Saints behind. The Falcons, for some reason, were not generally prognosticated to do well. Hit the fast forward button and you see that the Panthers and Bucs have been mostly terrible, the Saints have defied even the most optimistic predictions, and the Falcons have been as average as is humanly possible. With the Panthers and Bucs basically out of the race and the Saints way ahead, that just leaves the Falcons fighting for a spot. Hey, at least you can't say this hasn't been an exciting season.
So here come the disappointing Panthers, a team that makes us look a bit better in comparison. Our offense is actually a bit better than theirs thanks to the running game, but their pass defense is much, much better than the Falcons', to the tune of roughly 46 yards a game. That doesn't seem like a lot in the scheme of things, but it certainly is when you consider how abysmal the passing attack looks some weeks. Because Dunn and Norwood are a little banged up and the Panther's rushing attack is pitiful, this game will most likely come down to the passing game. If Vick has a good game and finds Crumpler, Lelie, and Jenkins a few times, the Falcons can put up enough points to carry this one away. For their part, the Panthers will come out gunning to their obviously superior receiving corps, which includes mighty mite Steve Smith and an older, milder Keyshawn Johnson. Then again, they're also probably starting Chris Weinke. The upshot of that is that Weinke basically sucks. Look for both teams to take it to the air often, and pray to your deity of choice that Vick doesn't get picked off a bunch.
Defense is traditionally the Panthers' calling card, though injuries and general ineffectiveness have crippled them this year (I feel like I write that sentence a lot. Do I?). The Panthers have a big play cornerback in Chris Gamble, and frankly the Falcons don't really have an answer for him. Every time I say Jenkins is stepping it up, he seems to knock it down a notch, so I'm going to call him Oven Mitts and see if it riles him up a bit. The Falcons will need a standout performance from DeAngelo Hall, who will be matched up against Steve Smith for most of the day. The Falcons' front seven shouldn't have any problem dealing with the Panthers' rushing attack, which features DeAngelo Williams and DeShaun Foster, neither of whom has been very good this year.
I don't anticipate many problems, except for the typical falling behind early one. That's sort of a hard habit for this team to shake.
Prediction: Falcons win by two TDs.