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This week’s big question: Can the Falcons start gaining ground in the NFC?

Sunday is important for the division and can set expectations for the rest of the season.

Atlanta Falcons v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Atlanta emerged from its daunting seven-game opening stretch with a 3-4 record. However, the seventh and final game on that list, a 35-17 blowout against Cincinnati, has left a lingering bad taste.

The Falcons have an opportunity to reassert themselves in what is shaping up to be a pretty chaotic NFC this weekend against the 2-5 Carolina Panthers. Carolina is coming off of an inspiring 21-3 home win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which serves as the most recent example of the conference’s parity in 2022.

In the month of October, the Panthers fired their head coach and defensive coordinator, traded superstar running back Christian McCaffrey and are actively taking trade offers for several other players. However, coming off the win, there’s optimism in the Carolinas that interim head coach Steve Wilks can get things rolling.

The Falcons need to shut that talk down, hard.

Few expected Atlanta to win games against Cleveland or San Francisco before the season started. This team has a legitimately excellent run game, a savvy play-caller, and a defense learning how to finish games. Yes, the numerous injuries in the secondary and the latest performance against the Bengals have dampened some of those feelings, but this team is better than the one we expected to see a few months ago.

Now, Atlanta needs to play like it against lesser competition. Carolina has a very good defense that has been hurt by the Panthers’ league-worst time of possession, but there are a few key indicators of good teams that this bunch doesn’t meet.

Carolina is the worst offense in the NFL on third down, converting just a quarter of its attempts. In the red zone, the Panthers don’t fare much better and rank 30th with a 42.9 percent conversion rate. Those two numbers right there play a large role in Carolina’s offense being lackluster in a large number of other metrics. They haven’t done the little things well on offense.

Their win against Tampa Bay was a little bit of a different story for the Panthers' offense, but this is far from an efficient or dangerous bunch. Week 7 might also prove to be a little bit misleading for Carolina’s defense.

This bunch, led by star defensive end Brian Burns, is aggressive and athletic. They looked like the makings of a dominant group against the Buccaneers, but that too might be a big hard to continue on a weekly basis. Carolina held Tampa Bay to just 2-of-12 on third down, 1-of-3 on fourth down and without a red-zone touchdown. However, coming into the game, the Panthers allowed a first down on about 43 percent of their opponent’s third downs, which ranks somewhere in the mid-20s.

Atlanta, meanwhile, is excellent in these little situational areas of offense. The Falcons have done a commendable job on early downs to keep their entire menu open. They’ve given themselves manageable looks on third down and in the red zone, which is why they currently rank 5th and 4th, respectively, in those two metrics.

This is not a flashy or explosive Falcons team, but it’s a well-oiled, slightly-past-warranty machine that ran up against a buzzsaw in Week 7. That hasn’t been who this team has been this season, though, just like the Panthers’ play last week has not been the norm.

These two teams have similar aspirations with a steep climb ahead and are coming off of very different outcomes. Both outcomes, however, look like outliers at this point and time. If the Falcons are going to take advantage in the NFC, they need to rebound this week and capitalize on a big opportunity.

It’s very possible the Falcons enter the weekend in sole possession of first place in the NFC South. A win against Carolina creates a bit more breathing room with the second game of each division rivalry still to come. More importantly, it keeps Atlanta in step with teams like Green Bay, San Francisco and Seattle, who figure to be in the mix throughout the year.

Before the year, we looked at this season almost as two distinct halves: The first seven games, and everything else. There was the expectation that Desmond Ridder would be preparing for his first start after Marcus Mariota stumbled through a brutal start to the year, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, the Falcons have an opportunity here.

They feasted on the bad teams last season but couldn’t compete against the good. Now, they’ve competed in nearly every single game. What does that mean for how this team fares against the weaker part of the schedule? Let’s find out.