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Falcons vs. Panthers: 4 Key Matchups for Week 17

It all comes down to this.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

A historically bizarre year has led Atlanta to one of the more significant regular season games in franchise history. You're aware of the situation by now, I'm sure: A victory on Sunday over the Panthers would give the Falcons an NFC South title; a loss would end their 2014 campaign.

What's more, this game figures have significant, long-term consequences. The losing head coach -- whether it be Mike Smith or Ron Rivera -- would likely be fired. The winning team would not only host a playoff contest, but would have a legitimate chance of advancing despite a sub-.500 record.

Regardless of the outcome, this is shaping up to be a close, entertaining battle, one that will be talked about well into the future.

Here are four matchups to watch as the Falcons vie for their fifth postseason berth in the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era.

Desmond Trufant vs. Kelvin Benjamin

Atlanta's defensive backfield is fairly depleted. Robert Alford remains on IR with a broken hand; William Moore is back on the shelf, too; Robert McClain, Alford's backup, is listed as questionable with an illness.

Undoubtedly, the Falcons need Desmond Trufant at his best.

Trufant should see a lot of time against Kelvin Benjamin. The freshman wide-out has 999 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on the season and, if not for Odell Beckham Jr., could have been the Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Benjamin fared well in his last game against the Falcons, when he totaled 109 yards and a score.

Cam Newton vs. Atlanta's front seven

Atlanta's defense came alive last week with five sacks -- quite a difference from what we saw in the previous 14 games, when they tallied just 16. While it's unlikely the Falcons can replicate that performance on Sunday, they should benefit from playing against Carolina's weak offensive line.

According to ESPN, Cam Newton has been hit twice as many times as any other QB in the league since 2011. Newton's head will be on a swivel, and if Atlanta can bring constant pressure, the Panthers will struggle to move the ball.

In their last meeting, Newton completed 23 of 37 passes for 292 passing yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Additionally, he earned 30 yards on the ground. He is 13-4 in his last 17 games during December and January.

Josh Norman vs. Julio Jones

The last time these two teams squared off, Josh Norman held Julio Jones to 59 receiving yards -- Jones' third-lowest output of 2014. A comparable result would be a huge boon for Carolina.

Jones is still hurt, but with so much on the line, it's hard to imagine him sitting out. Last week's showing -- in which he registered 107 receiving yards -- should have Falcons fans confident that Jones can play through the pain.

Norman, meanwhile, has quietly evolved into a solid cornerback. Based on his PFF scores, he's only had one truly bad game in 2014 and fared extremely well in both contests against Drew Brees.

Greg Olsen vs. Kemal Ishmael

Other than Rob Gronkowski, Greg Olsen is probably the best tight end in the NFL right now. He's currently 19 yards shy of 1,000, has six touchdowns and was rightfully named to the Pro Bowl roster.

Containing a star tight end is no easy task at full strength; doing so without your No. 1 strong safety is remarkably difficult. Without Moore in the lineup, Olsen could be in for a big day.

A number of Falcons will be tasked with covering the University of Miami product, one being Kemal Ishmael, who has been better than many expected. The 23-year-old did an admirable job last Sunday against Jimmy Graham and will need to provide a similar effort this week.

Which matchups will you be watching?