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What to know about the Falcons - Panthers rematch this weekend

Both of these teams are struggling.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

There’s an old axiom that goes something like this: If you feel you have to fire your offensive coordinator in your second year with him at the helm of your offense, and if you have to do that after an offseason where he was one of the darlings of the hiring cycle who didn’t quite land a job, your team may be in trouble. The Carolina Panthers, remembering that familiar saw, have elected to pull the fire alarm and acknowledge their troubles.

This reeks of Matt Rhule trying to find a fall guy for Carolina’s disappointing season, which looms as a bit of a cautionary tale for the Falcons. Everyone—including me—thought the Panthers would be heading in the right direction after a forgettable first season for Rhule’s Panthers, but while the defense has improved, the offense has stagnated and the Sam Darnold acquisition has been a massive bust. Coaches need time to implement their vision and get the right people in the building, but not every coach’s vision works out, and the Panthers are now facing the specter of a second straight lost season with no quarterback of the future in the building.

The Falcons could wind up there, too, though we hope not. That’s a sober discussion for another day. For the moment, this is just a battle between two scuffling NFC South teams trying not to end up in the basement of the division, one that figures to be low-scoring and obnoxiously sloppy. Let’s look at what you need to know for this game.

Falcons - Panthers comparison

Falcons - Panthers Comparison

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 5-7 27 24 17 25 31 25 18 22 24 25
Panthers 5-7 24 29 29 16 7 2 2 17 17 27

A year ago this time, the Panthers were a bad team overall. This year, they have a pretty impressive defense...and once again a lousy offense. They’re still not good, but that defense ought to concern Falcons fans.

The last time these two teams met, the Panthers only allowed 213 yards and 13 points to the Falcons. Atlanta’s offense is better in some ways than it was back then—they can run the ball now!—but I’ve beat you over the head with how concerned I am about this passing attack and that hasn’t really changed. Even with injuries piling up, Carolina is very capable of harrying Matt Ryan, taking advantage of mistakes, and limiting the damage the Falcons can do through the air. The biggest difference maker for the Falcons is probably the fact that Russell Gage is coming on, considering he was blanked last time out.

The so-so Carolina run defense is going to be a factor here, however. The Falcons haven’t shown they can win a game behind a strong rushing attack, but they piled up 82 yards on 20 carries last time out and are coming off back-to-back stellar efforts on the ground. If the Falcons can control the pace of this game and get themselves in scoring range via the run, they can probably cobble together a touchdown or two and a handful of field goals to win this.

Defensively, they are facing off against a Carolina team that hasn’t passed for over 200 yards since Week 4, meaning this won’t be the most strenuous test for A.J. Terrell and company. If Carolina’s going to beat the Falcons, they’re going to do so on the back of a quality rushing attack and a difficult defense, which seems like a perfectly legitimate road to victory. I’m just legitimately unsure whether the Panthers can gin up enough offense to hang with the Falcons if Atlanta’s even remotely competent on Sunday, which admittedly is not a given.

How the Panthers have changed

Remember Sam Darnold running all over the Falcons defense? That sure was humiliating!

It won’t happen this time around, because Darnold is on injured reserve. The Panthers are effectively splitting time between Cam Newton and P.J. Walker, who combined to complete 10 passes for 179 yards and three interceptions against the Dolphins. Their offense is an absolute nightmare at the moment, and the Falcons defense is not so bad that they should suddenly take off, especially with a better Atlanta run defense coming together in the last few weeks.

Christian McCaffrey was back in the fold but is now back on injured reserve, so you’ll see more Chuba Hubbard. If you recall, the Panthers committed to the run big-time last time and Hubbard ground his way to 82 yards on 24 carries and picked up a touchdown, which isn’t awe-inspiring but did help keep this game ugly and slow.

Carolina’s also been dealing with a long list of injuries of late, including multiple players out along their beleaguered offensive line. Those injuries have forced Carolina to dip ever deeper into their depth, and by and large their depth is not tremendous, particularly on offense. The Falcons aren’t exactly well-positioned to punish them if they’re down a starting lineman or two, but it won’t hurt this pass rush’s ability to get home, either.

That said, we don’t know exactly what the offense will look like with no Darnold and Joe Brady gone, and the possibility of a dead panther bounce can’t entirely be discounted.

What to know

We’ve sort of covered the key points above, but suffice to say this game is lining up to be sad and slow. The Falcons haven’t scored over 21 points in the past month, while the Panthers have been a sad sack team minus an incredible upset of the Cardinals and a win over...well, the Falcons. Neither one of these teams is moving the ball well, and the Carolina defense seems likely to ensure the Falcons continue to struggle to do so.

It would be a surprise if this game was anything other than another low-scoring, mistake-filled effort from both teams, because the Falcons are mired in a rough stretch and the Panthers offense is a mess. The Falcons can absolutely win this, but it will require gutting out what’s likely to be a frustrating day and quite possibly squeezing the first truly productive performance in a long time out of Matt Ryan and this passing game. This team has sounded prickly about their offense for a while now, but we all saw the Falcons drop their last game to Carolina with an extremely forgettable day through the air, and it’s reasonable to worry about that happening again.

If they can get something going on offense, I like their chances a lot. Atlanta’s done better on the road—largely against shaky opponents like the Panthers, but still—and the Panthers with Cam Newton at the helm are a familiar opponent the Falcons have been able to swat away in recent years. The question, as it has been for weeks now, is whether the Falcons can rise above the host of mistakes they’ve been making and dig deep enough to find the kind of performance that will allow them to dispatch a team that’s not much (if any) better than they are. We’ll know soon enough, but after a week where I was extremely pessimistic about the Falcons triumphing over a superior team, this one feels markedly more like a coin flip.