Usually you don't have to squint too hard to see the Falcons' path to victory for a game, even if it requires a little bit more competence and error-free football than we're used to seeing from the team in 2015. Against the Panthers, however, one must give the enterprise a little more thought.
That's because the Panthers aren't just a quality football team, they're a division rival, and a divisional rival almost uniquely suited to exploit the Falcons' chronic weaknesses.
On to our paths.
Offensively, this is the game where the Falcons' receiving options not named Julio Jones must step up. Julio's going to have Josh Norman glued to him, and while he can beat any cornerback in the league one-on-one on his best day, Norman does a better job than anybody else keeping #11 under control. If Julio's feeling frisky enough, he can command some safety attention from the Panthers, and at that point Jacob Tamme, Roddy White, Justin Hardy, Nick Williams, and even Devin Hester have to get involved and produce. The Falcons' passing game is effectively boned if Julio disappears and their secondary options have the kind of games we've come to expect from them.
Of course, things will be easier if the blitz-happy Panthers can't get home and put heavy pressure on Matt Ryan, since it will free up the kind of short and intermediate routes Kyle Shanahan has prioritized all year. That means Mike Person and Andy Levitre, in particular, must be stout against a rough Carolina interior defensive line. Ryan's not going to have the luxury of three or four uninterrupted seconds in the pocket, but a little time to make reads should mean he can get rid of the ball.
Balance will help with all of the above. It's time for Shanahan to prioritize restoring some balance to the offense, which means more totes for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, even if they don't immediately get going.
Defensively, it's all about containing Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart. I think the Falcons' run defense is still pretty good and will be able to at least limit Stewart's production, effectively putting the game in Newton's hands, which is plenty dangerous. If Newton can scramble the way Blaine Gabbert and Jameis WInston have (and he's much better at it), he'll extend drives and put the Panthers in a position to score a ton of points. If the Falcons can't clamp down in coverage on a so-so group of receivers and find someone who can keep up with Greg Olson, Newton will just sit in the pocket and pick them apart through the air. Atlanta needs to execute flawlessly most of the day and force a couple of turnovers from Newton to have a realistic shot of staying in this.
In other words, this is a tall task for Atlanta, particularly on the road.
This one's easy. The Panthers just need to let Cam Newton do what he does best, and if the Falcons start stacking the box to stop the run and successfully contain him on the ground, they'll let Newton's improved pocket passing go to work for them. Turnovers, tight coverage, and a successful pass rush are about the only things that are going to derail Newton in this game.
Defensively, the challenge depends entirely on how well the Panthers slow Devonta Freeman and contain Julio. If the Falcons can get those two rolling, it puts additional pressure on the Carolina defense and creates opportunities for others, and if that happens, the Falcons have a fighting chance of scoring enough points to win this one. With a defense of this quality, though, they can certainly do both of those things and put additional pressure on Matt Ryan.
I'm keeping this side of the ledger brief because there's not much to say. The Panthers simply need to play well to win, really, and they're likely to do so at home with plenty of motivation. I hate to say that, but there it is.