The Atlanta Falcons (9-5) travel to take on the Carolina Panthers (6-8) in the penultimate game of the 2016 season. Both Atlanta and Carolina are fresh off two-game winning streaks, but that’s where the similarities end. The Falcons are in prime position to clinch the division with a win on Sunday, whereas the Panthers are all but mathematically eliminated from contention.
Atlanta dominated the Panthers earlier in the season, 48-33, but Carolina seems to have found new life. Their defense has improved, particularly in the pass rushing department, but the offense has still struggled to consistently produce. The Falcons have also looked better on defense lately, albeit against two below-average opponents, but the offense has lost none of its potency.
Let’s see what the numbers tell us about how these two teams match up going into Week 16.
Total Points/game: Falcons 33.5 (1st), Panthers 24.1 (14th)
Total Yards/game: Falcons 412.9 (2nd), Panthers 347.3 (17th)
Passing Yards/game: Falcons 296.1 (3rd), Panthers 235.4 (19th)
Passing TDs: Falcons 32 (T-2nd), Panthers 19 (T-18th)
Rushing Yards/game: Falcons 116.7 (8th), Panthers 111.9 (10th)
Rushing TDs: Falcons 18 (3rd), Panthers 15 (T-6th)
Third Down Efficiency: Falcons 41% (13th), Panthers 39% (17th)
Turnover Margin: Falcons +8 (T-4th), Panthers +1 (17th)
The Falcons continue to be the best offense in the league, scoring 33.5 points/game. No other NFL team is averaging 30 or more. Atlanta is 2nd in total yards, 3rd in passing, and 8th in rushing. While the Falcons struggled with turnovers last season, the team has improved measurably thus far. They’re +8 in turnover margin on the year, tied for 4th. The only stat where the Falcons offense ranks outside the top-10 is third down efficiency, where they’re 13th.
Carolina is essentially a league-average offense. They’re 14th in points, 17th in total yards, 19th in passing, and 10th in rushing. Part of the reason for the Panthers success last season was their remarkable turnover margin. That hasn’t been the case this year, as the Panthers are just +1 overall, good for 17th. Carolina is also fairly average in third down efficiency, converting just 39% of their attempts (17th).
Total Points/game: Falcons 25.6 (T-26th), Panthers 25.1 (25th)
Total Yards/game: Falcons 368.9 (25th), Panthers 360.6 (22nd)
Passing Yards/game: Falcons 267.4 (30th), Panthers 274.8 (32nd)
Passing TDs: Falcons 28 (T-30th), Panthers 24 (T-23rd)
Rushing Yards/game: Falcons 101.5 (15th), Panthers 85.8 (3rd)
Rushing TDs: Falcons 13 (T-20th), Panthers 10 (T-11th)
Third Down Efficiency: Falcons 43% (27th), Panthers 38% (8th)
Sacks: Falcons 30 (T-17th), Panthers 40 (T-1st)
Atlanta has been steadily improving on defense this season, but they’re still a below-average unit overall. They’re T-26th in points and 25th in total yards, while also allowing 43% of third down conversions (27th). Atlanta is no longer the worst passing defense—they’ve improved to 30th in yards and T-30th in passing TDs. The defense is about average defending the run (15th), and in generating sacks (T-17th). We are seeing more consistent play lately, but they still have a long way to go before they’re “good”.
Carolina is not the fearsome defense they were last season. They’re right there with the Falcons in most stats: they’re 25th in points and 22nd in total yards. The Panthers have actually taken over the bottom spot in pass defense from the Falcons, allowing 274.8 yards/game (32nd). Carolina is, however, good at three things: rushing yards (3rd), third down efficiency (8th), and sacking the QB (T-1st). They’re not as dominant as last season, especially if Kuechly misses this game, but they’re still better than the Falcons on defense.
It’s a toss-up as to whether this or the Saints game is the toughest remaining on the schedule, but the Panthers are certainly going to put up more of a fight than the Rams or 49ers. Carolina generally plays the Falcons very tough in Charlotte, but this Atlanta team has shown that they play great football on the road in hostile environments (@Oakland, @Denver, @Seattle).
A lot is on the line in this match-up. The Falcons will clinch a playoff spot with a victory on Sunday, and the team likely needs to win out to have any hope of securing the #2 seed. Another loss for the Panthers officially eliminates them from playoff contention. The stakes are high, and we should expect a competitive game.
Atlanta still clearly has the edge on offense, and with Julio Jones likely making his return, should be able to move the ball through the air against a secondary that allowed Matt Ryan to pass for over 500 yards earlier in the season. The Falcons will likely need to score 30 points to win, but you have to like their odds against a below-average secondary.
Carolina should be able to move the ball against the Falcons, but Atlanta’s pass rush has improved markedly since the last time these teams met. If the Falcons can get to Cam like they did in Week 4, they can disrupt the Panthers’ offense and prevent them from getting into a groove. That will be necessary if the Falcons want to control the game.
Atlanta has the overall advantage here, but we should all expect a very close game between two heated division rivals. A sweep over the Panthers would be oh, so sweet.
What do you think about the match-up? Do you see the Falcons coming away with the W on Sunday?