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Four Critical Matchups In The Falcons-Panthers Rematch

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There's enough at stake for the Falcons to make this a compelling game.

The opponent is about as hapless as we could hope for in a must-win situation, but the Panthers are playing their last game under John Fox and already have the first overall pick locked up. They're playing to be a spoiler and aren't going to be caught napping on the field, so the Saints may be keeping their starters in a little longer. Not the worst thing that's ever happened.

I fully expect the Falcons to win this one, and to end the season in a style befitting the rest of their 2010 campaign. From there, it's a first round bye and a lot of unknowns. I'm just grateful they'll have the opportunity, myself.

After the jump, I'll give brief breakdowns of key matchups for the last time this regular season.

Panthers Ground Game vs. Falcons Defense

The Falcons have been stone solid against the run all season. Unfortunately, they can be exploited, and Jonathon Stewart proved to be one hell of a scam artist.

Stewart and Mike Goodson are a talented duo, and the Panthers' offensive line knows how to block for them. That's a dangerous combination in the best of times, but the Panthers put up over 200 yards the last time they played the Falcons. And that's with virtually no contribution from the passing game.

The Falcons need to dominate the point of attack and stop the Panthers on the ground. That will force the Teal Cats to beat Atlanta through the air, something that has a .0001% chance of succeeding.

Everything else flows from this, in my opinion.

Michael Turner and Jason Snelling vs. Panthers Defense

After struggling against the Saints last week, Turner needs a big game to get back on track for the playoffs.

The trick here is going to be to keep Turner involved, work in Jason Snelling and keep Turner from accumulating 25 carries. Fortunately, the Panthers aren't the league's best team against the run.

Snelling needs to prove he's healthy for the playoff push, as well. His pass catching ability out of the backfield is a critical component on this team.

Falcons vs. Mistakes

The Panthers aren't a particularly opportunistic team, but the Falcons had a significant role in their own demise last week with a pair of fumbles. Mistakes are the quickest way to lose in the NFL, and the Falcons need to play with the discipline that became their hallmark earlier this season.

Mike Smith vs. John Fox

One is on the verge of getting an extension. The other is finishing his last season with his current team. The difference in coaches is the biggest deal of all for these two teams.