The Falcons will head north to Bank of America Field to take on a division opponent, the Carolina Panthers, this Sunday. As you may have heard, Greg Hardy, a defensive end for the Panthers, believes that the Panthers are a better team than the Falcons despite their 3-9 record. Sources confirm that Greg Hardy reportedly also believes that Cam Newton is literally Superman, that unicorns are real, and that the little kid from the Play 60 commercial is actually coming for Newton's starting job, but none of his beliefs will help the Panthers against the Falcons on Sunday.
Realistically, the Panthers are not necessarily an easy target. They have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, and Atlanta's last matchup with them came down to a few big plays by the Falcons, and a few mistakes by the Panthers. The Falcons are the better team in this scenario--simple math tells us that an 11-1 record is better than a 3-9 record--but that doesn't mean the "any given Sunday" principle does not apply.
The main thing the Falcons will need to do is contain the run--an area in which the defense has struggled this season, but they have also proven that they can limit the run, as they did against Doug Martin in Tampa Bay, and last week against a Saints team that torched the Falcons on the ground in their first meeting. When the Falcons played the Panthers in the Georgia Dome earlier this season, Carolina rushed for 199 yards, with Cam Newton racking up 86 yards on his own.
Newton has proven that his arm is a legitimate threat, but he is significantly worse under pressure. Pro Football Focus premium stats quantify Newton's performance with no pressure as 263 drop backs with a 63% completion rate for 2,256 total yards, and under pressure, Newton has dropped back 148 times, completing just 42.9% of passes for a total of 678 yards. In their last meeting, the Falcons sacked Newton three times, and hurried him just six times. Getting more pressure on Newton will make Sunday a little easier for the Falcons. Adequate coverage on guys like Greg Olsen and Steve Smith will help the pass rush, and with William Moore (hamstring) and Asante Samuel (shoulder) held out of practice Wednesday and Thursday and uncertain for Sunday's game, Chris Owens and Chris Hope may be called upon to step up and perform. Owens has performed well this season under Mike Nolan's leadership, but Chris Hope has only played four snaps the entire season, so the strong safety position is more of a question mark if Willy Mo does not appear to be always ready to play this Sunday.
Atlanta's offensive line allowed an unreasonable amount of pressure on Matt Ryan the last time these teams met, permitting eight sacks, five hits, and eight hurries. Ryan had a decent day against the Panthers, anyway, but the offensive line will need to hold up for Ryan in pass protection on Sunday.
Another offensive element that could help keep pressure off of Matt Ryan on Sunday would be to get the ground game going against Carolina. The Falcons certainly are not setting the world ablaze with their ground game, but run blocking is improving, and Michael Turner tends to have excellent games against the Panthers. Carolina's defense is allowing an average of 128.8 yards per game, and in their last meeting, Turner put up 103 rushing yards, plus 68 receiving yards, 60 of which came from one reception that resulted in a touchdown. One variable is that Turner is listed on this week's injury report as limited with an elbow injury, so it's possible that Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling may play a more significant role on Sunday as well.
This is all basic stuff. Pressure the opposing quarterback, contain their run game, protect Matt Ryan, run the ball to keep their defense honest. None of this is necessarily specific to Carolina, either--these are fundamental things that need to happen for the remainder of the regular season, and into the playoffs.
While the Falcons have been winning close games (and getting little to no respect for it), the Panthers have been losing a lot of close games to good teams. The Falcons just won by two the last time they met, and the Panthers have lost close ones to playoff contenders in Tampa Bay, Seattle, Dallas and Chicago. They have the talent to make Sunday unpleasant for the Falcons, and the Falcons will just have to play smart football to get the win.
Atlanta is in a comfortable position, having already locked up the NFC South and a playoff appearance this season. The Falcons, however, have their sights set on bigger and better things. A win against Carolina on Sunday puts the Falcons one step closer to locking up the first seed in the NFC and securing home field advantage throughout the playoffs, which Greg Hardy believes would allow the Falcons to host their playoff games in Arthur Blank's backyard.
What are you expecting from the Falcons on Sunday?