Even after allowing last Sunday's win over New Orleans a few days to sink in, I still feel strange knowing the Falcons stand on the precipice of a playoff berth.
It's been a weird season characterized by equal parts coaching ineptitude, frustrating injuries, inconsistent execution and, in the middle of it all, flashes when the Falcons can overcome all of those things. Here they are at 6-9 trying to take down the 6-8-1 Panthers for the NFC South Crown in a game that can only be defined as a giant middle finger to the 9-6 Eagles.
It was only a handful of weeks ago that the Falcons squeaked by Carolina 19-17 up in Charlotte. That may seem too small a window for anything truly momentous to happen, but lo and behold: the Panthers are 3-1 since that loss, while the Falcons have notched pivotal wins over the Cardinals and Saints.
The Falcons were 2-6 heading into their Week 9 bye. The Panthers were 3-7-1 heading into their Week 12 open date. If that's not #startedfromthebottom, I'm not sure what is.
The difference should come down a movable force (Atlanta's defense) versus a stoppable object (Carolina's offense). Which group will prove less futile? Let's dive into some numbers and try to find out.
Is there anything "different" about Carolina's offense this time around?
1) An offensive line becoming less lousy
What was in years past a strength for the Panthers has been far from that in 2014. In addition to allowing 41 sacks this season, the unit has also struggles to maintain blocks on outside and power runs.
The most obvious issues have come from Byron Bell, who claims a -33.2 PFF grade on 978 snaps this year and has quite simply been a sub-par left tackle. This is also, in part, exemplified by the 18 negative running plays produced when rushing right (tied for 3rd-worst in the league) and the 15 negative running plays when rushing left.
So why is it that the Panthers have topped 150 yards rushing in three of their last four contests? An easy answer has been the improved play of right tackle Mike Remmers, who has started each of the past four games after riding the bench for most of the season. Left guard Andrew Norwell has likewise shown improvement over that same span.
For as talented as Cam Newton is, those of us familiar with the Panthers know that he's typically needed good support from his ground game in order to be an effective passer. Ryan Kalil is a four-time Pro Bowler and Trai Turner is a promising rookie fighting the ups and downs of his first season. It stands to reason that when their supporting pieces on the O-line are starting to improve, this Panthers offense can move the ball as it needs to -- that is, with balance.
Carolina is still a squad that has floundered in the red zone this year, hitting pay dirt only 45.45 percent of the time, and that could be a saving grace for the Falcons this weekend considering their red zone production (touchdowns 64.29 percent of the time) has been far superior. But the improving Panthers O-line will make that task more difficult, as its allowed offensive coordinator Mike Shula to call games more aggressively and diversely.
2) Jonathan Stewart (re)appears
For a while it seemed as if Stewart had fallen off the face of the Earth. Whether it was more injury or ineffectiveness, the Oregon product simply hadn't been doing a ton
this season since 2009. But in the four games since facing the Falcons in November, Stewart has given the Panthers offense a much-needed shot in the arm, racking up 437 rushing yards on 78 carries.
Want even more impressive numbers? Pro Football Focus calculates an "elusive rating" that factors in YAC/attempt, missed tackles as a rusher and missed tackles as a receiver. This season, Stewart has averaged 2.64 YAC per touch while avoiding 38 tackles on carries and 14 tackles on receptions, giving him the second-best "elusive rating" of all running backs with at least 90 carries.
And considering the aforementioned failures of the Panthers front five, Stewart's should due even more credit. He's actually made his offensive line better, not the other way around, and he should be able to put more pressure on a Falcons defense that's been iffy at tackling, to say the least.
3) Level of competition
I typically hate throwing this qualifier in there, but when two of the last three defenses you've faced are New Orleans and Tampa Bay -- both teams the Falcons have beaten twice, of course -- you've got to keep the 3-game Carolina winning streak in perspective. The Saints defense is giving up a whopping 6.1 yards per play this season (only Atlanta's mark of 6.2 is worse) while the Bucs are allowing 22.2 first downs per game (again, only Atlanta and Tennessee claim higher averages in this instance).
Carolina's 41-10 win over the Saints in the Superdome was impressive, to be sure, but it also reeked of a game that had simply spiraled out of control for one team while everything went the way of the other. Cam Newton accounted for 309 total yards and four touchdowns. I'll take that with a grain of salt, Rob Ryan.
And what's with this Falcons defense?
Granted, Atlanta's defensive "resurgence" really only includes the win over the Saints and, if we're looking at the glass half-full, the unit that held Le'Veon Bell to 47 yards on 20 carries two weeks ago. But man, have there been a few bright spots.
On the surface, it didn't appear as if the defensive snap counts changed too drastically. Sure, Osi Umenyiora saw the field more and Paul Soliai saw less, but that makes only the most basic bit of sense considering how often the Saints sling it with Drew Brees. Rather, it appears that the Falcons putting more pass rushers on the field at one time had great effect on how well Umenyiora (5 QB hurries), Jonathan Babineaux (1 sack, 1 QB hit, 4 QB hurries) and Corey Peters (1 sack, 1 QB hit, 2 QB hurries) were able to push the pocket.
Less time afforded Kemal Ishmael (+2.0 PFF game rating), Robert McClain (+4.0 PFF game rating) and Desmond Trufant (+1.5 PFF game rating) opportunities to make plays on the ball and force turnovers. McClain in particular did an excellent job on keeping Kenny Stills and Nick Toon quiet. And, as Andrew Hirsh pointed out earlier this week, Dwight Lowery made his fair share of plays, as well.
With William Moore back to IR and a host of other injuries to cornerbacks, these four will be critical for Atlanta, because this pass rush simply can't be counted upon week-to-week.
What happens when both collide?
As shown in the first matchup of this season, good run defense plus a couple of timely turnovers from turnover-prone Cam is what Atlanta needs to edge by its opponent in this one. With Stewart running the way he is, that should be much tougher. But if there's one thing we know, for all of his flaws, Mike Nolan and Mike Smith will commit to using run-stopping personnel to the point where it's detrimental to the team.
In the case of this matchup, though, that's the right call. Stop Stewart and you can stop Newton.
Final prediction: Falcons 24, Panthers 20