The Atlanta Falcons cleared their seven game opening stretch with a 3-4 record, putting them firmly in the mix in an unexpectedly weak NFC South. Now things open up for our birds of prey, who get to feast on some of the NFL’s lesser lights the rest of the way, minus a couple of exceptions.
The Carolina Panthers are no such exception. Fresh off a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and with Matt Rhule tossed overboard, Carolina is likely to be much feistier the rest of the way. They’re still a deeply broken football team, one with intriguing defensive pieces and a mess of an offense that doesn’t have a clear long-term option at quarterback and one that just jettisoned a couple of useful players in Christian McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson. The Falcons are favored here for the first time all year, and for good reason.
Still, this is a divisional game where anything can happen, and the Panthers are at least a little more competent without Rhule at the helm. Can they take advantage of a suspect Falcons passing game and pass defense to win, or will Atlanta pound them into the turf and come away with an easy victory to get back to .500?
Let’s get down to brass tacks, as basically no one says anymore.
Falcons - Panthers comparison
The Panthers are not a good team. The Falcons are a better team, but one with very obvious weaknesses. That’s the very quick summary.
The more nuanced one is that the Panthers have a decent pass defense and so-so run defense, one that’s better at tightening up near the end zone than it is between the 20s, and a pretty putrid offense to go with it. They looked a little sharper on both sides of the ball against the Buccaneers, but whether that’s a one-week bounce against a floundering rival or a sign of things to come remains to be seen. They are at least one good offseason away from being a solid football team.
The Falcons are fresh off a game it’s hard to be mad at. I thought the Falcons could and should win, but I wrote that expecting Atlanta to not let Joe Burrow have one of the very games of his career against them, and I wrote it expecting the hyper-efficient passing attack and quality pass protection from the San Francisco game would translate. None of that did and they were blown out, but the Falcons are fundamentally still a very solid team when they don’t run into a team seemingly tailor-made to exploit their weaknesses.
How the Panthers have changed
The biggest change is the head coach. Matt Rhule is gone after a very unsuccessful stint in Carolina that saw him put together a putrid 11-27 record. He leaves the Panthers in pretty rough shape, but we kind of knew that would be the case heading into 2022. Interim head coach Steve Wilks had a disastrous stint in Arizona that wasn’t entirely in his control, and he already looks like a better hand at the tiller for Carolina than Rhule. He’ll run the team the rest of the way and vie to take over on a permanent basis in 2023.
The other big change is at quarterback. Where Atlanta saw Sam Darnold and Cam Newton last year, this year the Panthers traded for Baker Mayfield with the hopes that he’d stabilize the position. Instead, Mayfield has also been bad (and hurt), and now Wilks appears content to roll with P.J. Walker for at least the moment. Walker, who threw a ton of picks in relief duty in 2020 and 2021, has been far sharper in his action this year, and absolutely took it to the Buccaneers with an efficient 16 for 22 performance that saw him post two touchdowns and 177 yards. He’s capable of taking advantage of Atlanta’s piecemeal secondary if he’s given the opportunity.
Besides the trade for Mayfield, the Panthers focused on helping out the trenches this past offseason, adding Bradley Bozeman and Austin Corbett at center and guard and adding promising tackle Ikem Ekwonu in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft. That group hasn’t been sensational, but they have talent and should provide better days for Carolina. The Panthers also added running back D’Onta Foreman from Tennessee, and the former Falcon is likely to see a major role Sunday with Chuba Hubbard banged up. Laviska Shenault is an interesting addition at receiver given his yards after the catch ability.
Defensively, the team added Matt Ioannidis on the interior of their line, Cory Littleton for the linebackers group, and Xavier Woods at safety, among other signings. They have a group that’s more talented on paper than their results this year would indicate, but we’ll see if they can string together some performances after holding Tampa Bay to an embarrassing three points on Sunday.
What lies ahead
This is a game the Falcons should win, given that they are the superior team both on paper and in terms of their 2022 results. My only concerns involve the team’s recent trend lines.
Let’s start with the obvious problem: Atlanta’s secondary is decimated. They’ll be trotting out Darren Hall, Isaiah Oliver, and maybe Dee Alford at cornerback, plus Mike Ford and some practice squad elevations. Dean Marlowe is taking over for Jaylinn Hawkins at safety, and while he’s fared pretty well on defense thus far in 2022, that’s different than starting a full game. Couple that with a pass rush that still doesn’t get home consistently and you have a recipe for some tough stretches. If this wasn’t the Panthers passing attack we were talking about, I’d be sweating it more.
The other problem is the passing game, but it’s a little less pressing because I expect this to be a close game where Atlanta can run successfully. Marcus Mariota just had a hyper-efficient game a couple of weeks ago, and this Panthers secondary is attackable enough. The larger problem is probably the Panthers front against Atlanta’s offensive line, given that pass protection has been spotty in recent weeks.
If Atlanta can at least slow Carolina’s aerial assault and keep Mariota pretty clean, they ought to win this one going away. Their line is going to hold up well in run blocking and the Panthers run defense is nothing special, and I’m doubtful Carolina will have much success running the ball at all, especially with Hubbard potentially on the shelf. If the Falcons don’t win this one, we’ll set some alarm bells off, but they should be able to handle their business and rebound nicely after losing to the Bengals.