Week 8 is here, and the Atlanta Falcons are coming off their worst performance of the season: a 35-17 loss to the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals. Atlanta now returns home to face the NFC South-rival Carolina Panthers for control of the division lead, and the Falcons are currently 4.5-point favorites according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you all incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Panthers, so I’ve enlisted the help of a Carolina expert: Walker Clement. Walker is a writer over at SB Nation’s Panthers site, Cat Scratch Reader.
I brought five questions to Walker to try to get a better read on how the Panthers have looked over the first six games, including his thoughts on the firing of Matt Rhule, the offense handing the reins to PJ Walker, and more. Read on for Walker’s answers.
Q1. The Panthers have had a tumultuous start to the 2022 season, to say the least. Matt Rhule and several coordinators were fired midseason after Carolina looked like the worst team in the NFC. As a Falcons fan who went through a similar end to the Dan Quinn/Thomas Dimitroff era, it feels very familiar to when Atlanta gave the duo “one more year” to get things right—and it ended up being a disaster. How do you feel about the decision to bring back Rhule and Co. for 2022, and do you think it was the right call to fire him midseason?
Walker Clement: I started shoveling coal on the Fire Rhule train when he fired Joe Brady and benched Cam Newton in favor of Sam Darnold late last season. The man clearly was out of his depth both managing an NFL roster and coaching a professional team. I’m just glad that we have moved on from that period in our history. I’m much happier watching the Panthers to see if Steve Wilks might be the real deal than I ever was watching them and knowing that Rhule was not.
Q2. The biggest issue for the Panthers each of the past few seasons has been quarterback. Whether it was Sam Darnold or Baker Mayfield, Carolina struggled to move the ball on offense. PJ Walker, who may have even found himself cut if rookie Matt Corral hadn’t been injured in the preseason, seems to have provided a spark for the Panthers in Week 7. How do you feel about the staff’s decision to hand the reins to Walker for Week 8, as opposed to going back to Mayfield?
Walker: Walker has 100% earned his start this week. Blame it on the run game finally clicking if you want, but he looked like the most composed, comfortable quarterback we’ve seen under center since Teddy Bridgewater’s first couple of games. Walker has always had all of the tools, but he was hanging on the edge of the roster because his decision making was always suspect. After last week’s game, Walker stated that he could make every throw but that his biggest growth this year was in learning that he didn’t always have to. Color me intrigued.
Q3. The NFL’s trade deadline is looming, and the Panthers have been the source of many rumors. One of those came true with Christian McCaffrey heading to the 49ers, but do you feel there’s any truth to the buzz around potential trades of DJ Moore or Brian Burns? Would you want Carolina to make any trades at this point?
Walker: I don’t think you are getting either guy for a reasonable price at this point. The front office famously turned down an offer for Burns last week that included two first round picks. Rumor has it that neither of those picks were in 2023, so it wasn’t that crazy of a turn down, but it does give you an idea of the floor the team is looking for in the trade market.
As for whether I would want the Panthers to trade away the two guys who make up 90% of the jerseys in the stands (of current players)... Sure. Why not? The Panthers are rebuilding and if they can squeeze what they view as adequate compensation out of another team for either of those guys, or the likes of Derrick Brown or Jaycee Horn then they absolutely should. Remember that adequate compensation here starts at two first round picks with at least one being in 2023. Give me a chance at a top QB and Will Anderson over one guy on our current roster any day.
Q4. A consistent strength of the Panthers has been the defense, and that unit put on a show against a hapless Bucs team in Week 7. However, on the season, the statistics have been mostly average for Carolina—17th in scoring defense and 18th in total yardage. How do you feel about the defense’s ability to slow down Atlanta’s offense, which is currently 12th in scoring and 4th in rushing yardage heading into Week 8?
Walker: The defense’s biggest weakness has been the offense. Prior to last week, the offense was producing three-and-out’s (threes-and-out?) at a record pace. No defense can stay great without rest. For context here, the Panthers saw over 40:00 of the game clock tick off between first downs in their game against the Rams.
If the offense can sustain even one drive per half, which is actually a big ask of these Panthers, then I have moderate confidence in the Panthers ability to slow down Atlanta’s offense. Keep in mind that the Panthers might have a full strength secondary for the first time in weeks come Sunday. Jaycee Horn has proven that he is a force to be reckoned with at corner.
Q5. Carolina is currently a 4.5-point underdog on the road in Atlanta. What’s your prediction for the game, and do you think PJ Walker’s success can continue against a Falcons secondary missing three starters (AJ Terrell, Casey Hayward, and Jaylinn Hawkins)?
Walker: I had never been more down on the Panthers than I was for the first five weeks of 2022. Then things looked worse (on the field) for their first game after firing Matt Rhule and I was prepared for a strong showing some time in the vicinity of 2024. That’s how far gone my hope was. Then Walker steps his game up and I’m back to thinking this team could be fun again. Good? No. But most certainly fun. And fun teams beat injured teams some times out of ten.
I’m going to choose to believe right now and say that Panthers will show up for a divisional game and remain undefeated in the NFC South, having beaten each team in it. They will leave Atlanta with a 3-5 record and a 24-14 win over the Falcons. I also reserve the right to change that opinion at any time. The Panthers are, to be clear, pure chaos this season. No opinion on them that is confident is also based purely in fact.
Many thanks to Walker Clement for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow him at @MetaphorGuy, and if you’re in the mood for a Panthers perspective on things, follow Cat Scratch Reader at @CatScratchReadr.