When the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers meet Sunday, it will be more than a game that helps to determine whether Atlanta makes the postseason or not. It will be the latest edition in a grudge match that has featured many blowouts, chippy moments, and a seemingly genuine (and mutual) disdain between two teams. That’s part of what makes it fun.
Slightly less fun, of course, is contemplating a loss here. It could certainly happen, though, because Carolina is a dangerous, playoff-bound football team itching to knock the Falcons off. If Ron Rivera can’t be convinced to sit any of his starters, it’ll be a slugfest for Atlanta in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A winnable slugfest, sure, but a real one.
Here’s why we’re feeling confident and worried about this matchup.
One reason to feel confident: Improving run defense
The last time the Falcons played the Panthers, they couldn’t buy points, and they let Cam Newton scramble all over them. This time around, the Panthers have to play the Falcons in front of their (hopefully loud and rowdy) home crowd, and they have to face off against a Falcons run defense that has been pretty terrific since that loss against the Vikings.
If that’s not some sort of mirage—and the team’s impressive game against the Saints suggests it’s not—then they may be able to keep Newton and Christian McCaffrey from running them over. If they can do that, and maybe Julio Jones doesn’t drop a wide open touchdown pass in the end zone, this feels like a winnable game. The Falcons barely lost last time around despite struggling mightily on both sides of the ball, and the Panthers aren’t a good enough passing team to survive being shut down on the ground.
One reason to worry: The offensive line
Carolina’s defensive line is a brutal matchup for just about anybody. Mario Addison is an impressive pass rusher with 10.5 sacks, Julius Peppers is still legitimately good at the age of 37, and the interior of their line is well-stocked with imposing men like Kawann Short. This isn’t a cakewalk even with an offensive line that’s at full strength.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems unlikely they will be at full strength. Alex Mack is dealing with a calf strain that figures to limit him even if he does play, and both Wes Schweitzer and Andy Levitre are dealing with injuries themselves. The team may be forced to go to the capable but not elite Ben Garland at center, and they’re an injury away from Jamil Douglas playing his first game since 2016. None of that would be ideal against even a weak opponent, and Carolina is not a weak opponent.
We’ll hope the offensive line manages to field a full set of five starters and hold Carolina at bay, but if Atlanta does lose this game, the health of the line figures to be a factor.