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What to know about Falcons vs. Panthers in Week 8

Atlanta’s gradually figuring this thing out, while the Panthers are collapsing.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Four weeks ago, the Falcons were a 1-2 football team coming off a narrow and ugly win over the Giants, one that would inspire Dean Pees to yell at the media about a perceived lack of respect. The Panthers were a perfect 3-0 and buzz was building around Sam Darnold and his return to relevance. Those two teams were in very different spots not just from a record perspective, but also in terms of how good they appeared to be.

Fast forward a month and we’re looking at a very different picture. The Falcons defense is still a work in progress, but the offense is making big strides and Atlanta has won two of three en route to a .500 record. That has put them past the Panthers, who have dropped four consecutive games, are coming off a deeply discouraging 25-3 loss to the lowly Giants, and actually benched Darnold last game. Much can change in a short time in the NFL.

The question for the Falcons is a simple one: Are they good enough to beat a bad Panthers team, and will Carolina be able to figure anything out between now and next Sunday? Let’s talk about what you should know about the Panthers and this matchup.

2021 comparison

Falcons vs. Panthers

Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Falcons 3-3 20 17 10 27 30 18 19 16 27 21
Panthers 3-4 22 30 30 26 7 3 2 10 31 22

The Panthers legitimately have one of the best defenses in the NFL, but they’ve had a couple of major lapses thus far. The offense has done the rest of the damage.

As was the case with the Dolphins, there’s a little too much talent on that side of the ball for the Panthers to be as abysmal as they were against the Giants. I would argue that Tua is a superior quarterback to Darnold, though, and the collection of pass catchers here just isn’t impressive beyond the excellent D.J. Moore. Without McCaffrey, with a depleted tight end group, with Robby Anderson struggling mightily and rookie Terrace Marshall still catching on, this supporting cast isn’t so good that Darnold’s weaknesses as a passer can be overlooked. That has compounded his struggles, of course, but the reality is that Darnold was either never that great in the first place, has a hard cap in terms of how good he can be, or the Jets absolutely ruined him. Maybe it’s all three.

Carolina’s defense, as good as it is, hasn’t been to consistently carry that offense to victory. They’ve gotten stomped twice by Dallas and Minnesota and allowed over 400 yards on the ground between those two efforts, pointing to a vulnerability the Falcons are not necessarily well-positioned to exploit. Atlanta’s going to find the sledding here much tougher than it has been the past several weeks, as Carolina has some ferocious pass rushers and a pretty capable secondary. Of course, Atlanta just torched a great Dolphins group, so maybe Kyle Pitts will prove so magical that the Panthers can’t lock him down.

The Falcons, of course, are trending in the right direction on offense. After scoring a combined 48 points in the season’s first three weeks, Atlanta has scored 87 over the past three weeks, hitting 30 points twice in that span. They’ve gotten Kyle Pitts uncorked, Matt Ryan is on fire, and the offensive line has been making weekly strides, and it’s all adding up to the kind of offense we hope we’d see in 2021. They’ll have to play even better to beat Carolina, but this is on area in which I’m confident.

Defensively, they get another prime matchup, featuring a team that looks even worse than Miami did coming into last week. Tua is better than Darnold, the cast of playmakers in Miami is better and the Carolina offensive line is still a work in progress, so if the Falcons can even make some modest strides over their forgettable effort against the Dolphins, they ought to be able to win this one. With Dante Fowler out, injuries piling up in the secondary and no real pass rush to speak of outside of Grady Jarrett, I don’t think you can take that as a given. Certainly, Carolina has all the incentive in the world to bounce back with Joe Brady and Sam Darnold alike on dangerous ground.

Oh, and the Panthers are banged up, with tackle Cam Erving, linebacker Shaq Thompson and rookie receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. all missing last week’s game. We’ll see if they’re back this week, but for a team crumbling like a cake in milk, missing any significant contributors is a problem.

This is a matchup that favors the Falcons on paper, however narrowly. Let’s hope it works out that way.

How the Panthers have changed in 2021

They stink? No, just kidding. Kind of.

In free agency, they added starting left tackle Cameron Erving and tight end Dan Arnold to the offense, and Arnold was later traded. On offense would prove to be impactful later, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Defensively, Carolina kept build on a strong nucleus, adding starting defensive end Morgan Fox, linebacker Haason Reddick, plus corners A.J. Bouye and Rashaan Melvin. The defense figured to be a strength for this team given their work in prior years and free agency, and that’s mostly been very true in the early going.

The other big move for Carolina on offense was the trade for Sam Darnold. It was somewhat of a surprise to see Carolina not try to get Mac Jones or Justin Fields given that they were in a position to do so, but they decided to try to buy low on a once-promising, still young quarterback the Jets had busily been ruining. They gave up three picks to do it, including a 2021 6th rounder, 2022 2nd rounder, and 2022 4th rounder. Clearly, the coaching staff believed they could get him to bounce back without having to spend a top pick on a quarterback, and reasoned if they didn’t the bounty they gave up wasn’t that much. For three games they looked like geniuses for doing that trade, and over the past four games they’ve looked significantly less smart.

The draft was pretty terrific. Jaycee Horn might be one of the league’s best young cornerbacks when healthy, the team added a potential future tackle starter in Brady Christensen, scooped up an underrated wide receiver in Terrace Marshall Jr., and wound up discovering drafting a gem of a running back in Chuba Hubbard. We don’t know how some of their later picks will work out, but the top of the draft looks very fruitful and they picked up a ton of players, which Carolina hopes will help them build out a contending roster in the near future.

In the here and now, it’s fair to say the draft has promise, their defensive free agent signings were mostly good, and their trade for Darnold doesn’t look good at all. It’s very early, though.

What to know for Sunday

This team is a disaster right now, and I don’t say that lightly. Losing four in a row is real bad for any team—and the Dolphins had lost five heading into their game against Atlanta—but when you get absolutely crushed by a bad, injured Giants team and bench Sam Darnold for a guy who completes 3 of 14 passes, you’re in pretty deep.

Christian McCaffrey is back on the shelf, and he now has an alarming multi-year injury history that suggests he might never be as durable and phenomenal as he once was. Darnold has thrown two touchdowns and five interceptions over his past three games, finding it hard to reliably connect with anyone but D.J. Moore and Hubbard. Robby Anderson is getting paid a lot of money to reel in a startling 37% of his targets, the tight ends have mostly been non-factors in the passing game, the pass protection is pretty bad, and Carolina had 173 total yards against New York. The offense cannot be worse than that and won’t be worse than that against Atlanta, but these are problems that run very deep.

Carolina’s defense is a different story. They got torched by the Vikings and roughed up a bit by the Giants, but it’s still a deep, talented group with 18 sacks on the season. Brian Burns and Reddick have been one of the league’s better pass rushing duos, combining for 10.5 sacks, and the front seven is loaded with talent. Atlanta’s fortunate to catch the Panthers without Jaycee Horn, who hit injured reserve a couple of weeks back, but the secondary isn’t exactly lacking talent either. The Falcons will need to stay crisp on offense and avoid the kind of brain farts and blown blocks that have proven very costly in recent weeks, but that’s easier said than done when you’re facing off against a really good group.

Zane Gonzalez has been a solid kicker but is just 1 for 3 from 50+ yards so far this year, and the team’s punting situation is a bit of a mess. Special teams seems unlikely to decide this one in Carolina’s favor, is what I’m getting at.

This is a long-winded way of saying this is a bad offense at the moment being partially buoyed by a capable defense, but they’re just not playing well now.

The Falcons can’t allow Darnold and company to get back on track the way Tua Tagovailoa just did against them, because they’ll find the sledding against this Carolina defense tougher than they did against Miami. Like the Dolphins game, the recipe for winning this one is getting a couple of timely turnovers, cranking up some kind of pressure on Darnold, and leaning heavily on weapons like Kyle Pitts to demoralize a quality defense. That’s all straightforward, but again, you actually have to do it.

We’ll hope the Carolina team we see in Mercedes-Benz Stadium closely resembles the one that just lost to the Giants, because Atlanta should win easily if so.