Dave Choate: Big one, from a concerned Falcons fan: Is Ron Rivera going to follow through on keeping his starters in the game and playing to win, even if there are no stakes here for Carolina? Is injury a concern for you if he does?
Brian Beversluis: I think about the only starters they might rest are G Trai Turner and S Kurt Coleman, because those guys are still a little dinged up. That said, Rivera was already quoted as talking about what was “potentially on the line”, so I don’t expect them to not go full tilt in this game. I think Rivera knows you don’t let another team into the playoffs if you can help it.
Sorry Concerned Fan.
Dave Choate: Cam Newton has been throwing to receivers I couldn't pick out of a lineup most of the year. Who are the most dangerous non-McCaffrey and Olsen options in this passing attack today?
Brian Beversluis: Devin Funchess is already showing to be a much more well-rounded receiver now as the WR1. He’s faster and more technically refined than Benjamin was, and he’s only 24. He will be a factor.
The only other guy I can really say could be a threat is Kaelin Clay, as he will become the speed threat that Curtis Samuel and then Damiere Byrd played following injury to Samuel. With Byrd also on IR, their options are limited. Expect he and Russell Shepard to be getting the deep shots.
Dave Choate: The Falcons run defense has improved significantly since the first time these two teams met. Is Cam Newton running with the football still going to be a major part of the gameplan, or will Carolina look to put the ball into the hands of Stewart and McCaffrey more often?
Brian Beversluis: Carolina has finally figured out (for like the 3rd season in a row) that you simply have to let Cam BE CAM. He is at his best when he is allowed to run the football, it gets him into a rhythm.
Cam is going to carry the rock on Sunday. They’ve been smart about not allowing him to take bad hits and so has he. But he will get carries, and they will continue to feature several different rushers.
Dave Choate: How is that secondary looking? It's not the same unit Julio Jones torched last year, which we got a glimpse of earlier in the season, but will they clamp down on Atlanta the same way the Saints largely just did?
Brian Beversluis: The Panthers don’t have anybody like Marshon Lattimore on their secondary, but James Bradberry and Daryl Worley have come on strong the last few weeks on the outside. Over the last three games, they have two interceptions apiece, and those were against an Aaron Rodgers led Packers and a potent Vikings offense.
Bradberry will likely shadow Julio Jones during the game, which did not go well last week against Mike Evans. I’m hoping for more bracket coverage against Julio, but they seem to trust Bradberry against high end WR1s. Captain Munnerlyn has been good in the slot, despite limited snaps. They’ve been mixing in linebackers and Colin Jones in a big nickel type role as well.
Dave Choate: Who wins this game, and how far can Carolina go in the postseason this year? Are you guys buzzing about a return to the Super Bowl?
Brian Beversluis: I’ve spent all year picking against the Panthers after that Bears game, and that isn’t going to change. I think Atlanta goes all in and manages to pull out a win in a hard fought game, winning 20-13 (lots of field goals).
It is certainly possible Carolina makes a run for the SB. On their best games, they can get after any quarterback, force turnovers, run the ball and let Cam be Cam. The issue has been consistency. Cam has lead a playoff winning team with no name receivers before, but the rushing attack will need to be there. But it is possible, as this may be the best top to bottom defense Carolina has had in a long time.