Whenever the Falcons travel up to Charlotte to see ole Riverboat Ron and Cam Newton, sparks tend to fly.
Think back to 2015.
The Falcons were shut out 38-0 and utterly embarrassed by a team who then took celebratory pictures on the sidelines before the game was even over.
Each dab hit like a piercing stab.
The Falcons got their payback in Atlanta by ending Carolina’s perfect season, a game that will always be remembered by Julio Jones jumping into the stratosphere to steal a ball away from Luke Kuechly.
Now remember last year—how could you not?
Matt Ryan set an NFL record by throwing a touchdown pass to his 13th different receiver en route to dealing the Panthers their very own Queen City catastrophe.
The end of the dab came at the hands of the MVP, Matty Ice.
Entering this all important first divisional game, both teams look different than in recent memory.
The Falcons are still trying to find their 2016-selves on offense, and the defense, albeit better, is still trying to play smarter and more aggressive football.
The Panthers, well, they’re still trying to find their roar. Despite their 5-3 record, it hasn’t been all peaches, and they’d be the first to tell you they aren’t where they want to be. The defense is solid, per usual, but the offense is about as predictable as an episode of Scooby Doo.
Stuffed run, manufactured pass to Christian McCaffrey, incomplete pass by Cam Newton. Punt. Then they trade away their number-one receiver in Kelvin Benjamin.
This is a team already without star TE Greg Olsen. The top passing options now become WR Devin Funchess and TE Ed Dickson, with WR Curtis Samuel trying to establish himself as more than just a speedy gadget player.
So, what’s the Panthers’ game plan likely to be on Sunday? Attack on defense and hope Cam can do his superhero thing again.
For the Falcons, this game comes down to execution, as always. They can’t keep beating themselves with costly penalties and boneheaded mistakes.
With Vic Beasley finally healthy and looking good at SAM linebacker, the Falcons defense may just be hitting its stride. A little boost from Sean Weatherspoon never hurt anyone, either (leave your puns at home).
In order for the Falcons to win their first division bout of the year, they’ll need to dominate the following matchups.
Falcons’ pass rush vs. Panthers’ offensive line
Falcons fans have been waiting for this juicy matchup ever since the Panthers inexplicably signed LT Matt Kalil to a massive deal in the offseason. Kalil has struggled mightily this season as expected, and he’s going to get a full dose of healthy Falcons’ pass rush on Sunday.
Vic Beasley is back to full strength and playing more linebacker, Takkarist McKinley is looking more comfortable each week, and Adrian Clayborn is playing as well as ever.
With Ryan Kalil (the brother that isn’t terrible) out with a neck injury, journeyman Ted Larsen steps in to try and slow down Dontari Poe and the red-hot Grady Jarrett. Good luck, Ted.
The Falcons finally got some pressure in the fourth quarter to help seal a win last week against the Jets, and they’ll have a good opportunity against the Panthers to make Cam Newton spend the day running for his life.
Falcons’ running backs vs. Panthers’ linebackers
This matchup is nothing short of a clash of the titans. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are still a premier running back tandem, but the Panthers have one of the most formidable linebacker corps in the NFL to offset a matchup that typically gives Atlanta the nod.
A healthy Luke Keuchly is one of the smartest and most talented defenders in the NFL, and Thomas Davis is still playing at a high level despite giving Methuselah a run for his money. Shaq Thompson, a former college running back, is a twitchy athlete and can run sideline-to-sideline with just about anyone.
If the Falcons plan to win this matchup, Steve Sarkisian will need to spend more time playing back the burned CD left behind in a parking lot in Flowery Branch, “Kyle Shanahan’s Best of Fall ‘16: The Top Hits.”
Who can forget the chart-topping “Tevin’ on a Prayer” and “Sweet Freeman O’ Mine”? Those timeless ballads could be played endlessly on repeat. Tevin Coleman would split out wide to find single coverage against a linebacker and boom, touchdown.
Devonta Freeman would spill of out the backfield, catch a dump-off pass, and shimmy into the end zone leading to a big-man spike. That’s the stuff that dreams are made of, folks.
Getting these two talented backs more involved in the pass game would be music to everyone’s ears. Add these to the setlist, Sark.
Falcons’ receivers vs. Panthers’ secondary
When you have Julio Jones on your side, this matchup typically becomes a problem for the opposition. The problem is, Julio hasn’t quite been Julio this year.
Partly because of getting nicked up here and there, Jet Jones has yet to break the sound barrier on an opposing team, though there’s reason to believe he’s just getting revved up.
Just last week, Ryan hit Jones on the prettiest deep ball of Atlanta’s season for a huge gain, and Dan Quinn stated that he wants Jones more involved going forward. Against the Panthers, he should see a heavy dose of targets. With the Panthers’ tough pass rush, particularly from the interior, Ryan will likely have to get rid of the ball quickly, and Jones is his most-trusted target.
Jones should draw coverage primarily from James Bradberry, a talented youngster who’s held his own against Julio in the past. With the division up for grabs and Julio’s propensity to embarrass the Panthers, chalk this one up as a big game for the All-Pro receiver.
That leaves Mohamed Sanu against Captain Munnerlyn in the slot—where Sanu has played some of his best ball—and Taylor Gabriel on the outside against Daryl Worley, a matchup that could see Gabriel finally have his breakout game of the year.
The wild card is the return of Panthers’ FS Kurt Coleman, who’s been stellar for Carolina in the past but is recovering from an MCL sprain.
Newcomer SS Mike Adams has been a wash for the Panthers, but he is a talented veteran joining the rivalry after spending the past three seasons with the Colts. It’s hard to believe Adams has been in the league since 2004, but the Panthers love getting production out of old defenders—see Davis and Julius Peppers.
With Austin Hooper one dropped touchdown away from having his best game as a pro, one has to wonder if he’ll be more involved going forward. Against a stingy Panthers’ defense ranked third in the NFL, the Falcons will take all the production they can get.
Which matchups are you looking forward to the most?