Last season, the Arizona Cardinals missed the playoffs with a 10-6 record. This season, now 11 weeks old, the Atlanta Falcons are in the playoff hunt despite their 3-6 mark. Football, like life, is unfair.
After five straight losses, Atlanta earned a crucial victory over Tampa Bay last week—bringing them out of the depths of despair and into contention. Well, kinda: Just one game behind New Orleans in the standings, the Falcons can move into first place in the NFC South with a win this week.
It's nice to have hope, but don't plan the parade just yet. Atlanta still needs to take down Carolina on Sunday to keep their very, very slim playoff hopes alive. While the Panthers aren't exactly "elite," they should give the Falcons a run for their money.
Here are four matchups to watch as these division rivals clash.
Atlanta's front seven vs. Cam Newton
Cam Newton is a fantastic quarterback. He just hasn't been himself of late.
The former first overall pick has posted a QB rating below 80 in each of his last five contests, and is 0-4-1 in that span. His stats have been, to put it mildly, pedestrian: 10 TD passes, eight interceptions, 58.1 completion percentage.
This is not exactly Cam's fault, though. The Panthers' shoddy offensive line has been unable to protect him—sound familiar?—and let Newton get sacked a career-high nine times last week in Philadelphia. Following that performance, Carolina's pass protection rating on PFF dropped to -54.7—14.7 points lower than anyone else.
Newton, who admitted to playing hurt, won't be 100 percent. If Atlanta's pass rush can get him to the ground, or at least disrupt his rhythm, the Panthers will have a hard time pulling out a W.
And while the Falcons have struggled to get to the QB for much of this year, they did earn four sacks in Tampa. A sign of things to come, perhaps? We'll see.
Julio Jones vs. Carolina's secondary
Julio got back on track last Sunday, gaining 119 receiving yards against the Bucs. Don't be shocked if he turns in a similar performance this week.
According to JunkyardJake.com, Carolina has surrendered more wide receiver touchdowns and receptions than any other team this season. Furthermore, the Panthers' pass coverage rating is the lowest in the NFL on PFF (-40.4).
Dirk Koetter will try to establish the run—as he should—but this will be as good a time as any to stretch the field. Air it out, take some risks, force Carolina's secondary to make plays.
Greg Olsen vs. Atlanta's linebackers/safeties
Without Sean Weatherspoon, William Moore and much depth, the Falcons lack the ideal personnel to stop opposing tight ends. That could be a problem, as Carolina's Greg Olsen is among the best TEs in the league.
Olsen, who has 658 receiving yards and five touchdowns on the year, could be in for a particularly big day. He certainly fared well against the Falcons last season, racking up 108 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 10 catchs.
Truth is, Atlanta will probably struggle to keep the 6-foot-5 reception machine in check. The key will be to limit his red zone touches.
Carolina's front seven vs. Atlanta's offensive line
Carolina's defense is far less potent without Greg Hardy, but that unit could still present issues for Atlanta's offensive line. Because, well, you know.
Not a single Panther has more than four sacks in 2014, but they are 16th in the NFL in that category with 21—14 of which have come at home. Dwan Edwards and Mario Addison each have four.
Atlanta's offensive line has been a major weakness, but looked much-improved in Tampa. James Stone and Ryan Schraeder were surprisingly good, and Jake Matthews was a lot better than he had recently been. Maybe, just maybe, they can do well in Charlotte.