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What to know about Falcons - Panthers in Week 15

This is the easiest matchup left for Atlanta, and one they unquestionably must win to keep the season alive.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons have been able to put positive spins on many situations this year, from their roller coaster quarterback situation to an ugly three game losing streak. There’s always another opportunity, a vein of golden improvement amidst the drab stone of failure, a returning player or a simpler opponent. If nothing else, this team has excelled at finding a reason to stay positive.

Those reasons are dwindling as we reach the end of the season. The Falcons are 6-7, embroiled in a nominal three-way nightmare tie for the NFC South lead but effectively behind the Tampa Bay Buccaneers owing to tiebreakers. They blew their chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division by losing to the Bucs in the same miserable fashion they’ve tended to lose all year, via a raft of mistakes. This team is now dealing with more injuries than they did early in the year, a lack of tangible progress from the offense, and a defense that has been really good but still has a nasty habit of wilting late owing to ailments and exhaustion. They have four games left and can still win the NFC South, but they’re not improving at a rate that suggests they’re going to have an easy time running the table over the final month of the season.

In the here and now, the best reason for optimism is this week’s opponent. The Carolina Panthers are 1-12, and they may be a worse team now than they were in Week 1 when the Falcons first saw them. Plagued by inconsistency, working with an interim coaching staff, and not playing consistently good football in any phase, the Panthers are the worst team in football record-wise and perhaps the worst team in football, and even with Atlanta hitting the road this is easily the most winnable game left on the schedule. Atlanta has to use this opportunity to get back to .500 ball (and perhaps back atop the division, depending on what the Buccaneers and Saints do) and mine that win for their needed dose of optimism.

Here’s what you should know about the matchup ahead.

Falcons - Panthers head-to-head comparison

Falcons - Panthers rankings

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 6-7 24 15 21 6 12 11 9 15 21 18
Panthers 1-12 30 30 31 21 31 4 3 22 32 14

The Panthers are very simply awful. Their poor defense is the only part of the team remotely carrying its weight, and even they have struggled to stop the run or hold the line in the red zone, the latter in part because they so frequently have offenses starting with excellent field position. They’re at least stingy enough, particularly through the air, to cause problems for Atlanta, but they rarely create turnovers, which is big news for Atlanta. Their offense stinks out loud.

The Falcons aren’t exactly great, either. The defense has largely done its job and is just outside the top ten in yardage and points allowed, but they don’t produce a ton of turnovers, don’t have much in the way of a consistent pass rush, and have been susceptible to late collapses when they tire. The offense is a good ground game (when it shows up) and a streaky, inconsistent passing attack capable of impressive highs but too often showcasing frustrating lows.

This isn’t going to be a pretty game, in other words.

How the Panthers have changed

Frank Reich has been canned, assistant head coach and running backs coach Duce Staley is gone, and quarterbacks coach Josh McCown is out. The bloodletting caused by the team’s miserable season is hardly over, but those were the three initial exits, and that has left Carolina with an interim staff that has coaxed some feistiness but not much else out of this roster.

The offense has been changed by injury and circumstance. The disappointing Miles Sanders is running behind Chuba Hubbard at running back, and thanks to injuries, both guard spots are now featuring fill-in starters. With Hayden Hurst dealing with some scary concussion-related symptoms, the tight end depth chart is also thinned out, with the possibility that Atlanta doesn’t have to face anyone too intimidating at a position they’ve often struggled to defend.

Defensively, this team is relatively intact, and it’s that side of the ball that may pose trouble for the Falcons on Sunday. Major changes are coming to the coaching staff and both sides of the ball in the offseason, but we’re a few weeks away from that. This is mostly the same team the Falcons beat back in Week 1, just further diminished by injury and a depressing slog of a season.

What to know about Sunday’s game

I predicted the Buccaneers-Falcons game would end in a higher-than-average scoring output for both teams owing to injuries on defense, and that proved to be true. I can’t see the same thing unfolding here.

The Falcons have to win this and will be wary of being overturned by the league’s weakest team, so I expect them to play this far more conservatively than they did against Tampa Bay. That means leaning on the run—assuming the state of the offensive line is such that they feelt they can do so—and going back to getting Ridder throwing less often. They’ve only won two of the six games in which Ridder has had to throw more than 30 times—and just two of seven games total in which a Falcons quarterback has hit that mark—and would like to pick their spots better and lean more heavily on play action. The first time out, Atlanta ran the ball 26 times for 130 yards (5 yards per carry) and only asked Ridder to throw it 18 times, and he completed 15 of those passes for 115 yards, an efficient if not particularly impressive total. Crucially, he also only turned the ball over once, and the Falcons will hope for a version of that gameplan that will likely feature a bit more passing and a bit more Ridder running than the last time out carrying them to 20-plus points and a victory.

Defensively, Atlanta just needs to play disciplined and punish Carolina’s inevitable mistakes. This rushing attack is lackluster—Hubbard and Sanders are both capable of good games but rarely string them together—and the passing attack is beyond anemic owing to scuffling pass protection, a struggling Bryce Young, and a lackluster set of weapons for him to throw to. It’d be nice if Jessie Bates could once again terrorize Young and the Falcons could get the pass rush really rolling, but simply playing quality coverage and getting a little pressure on Young should be sufficient to hold Carolina in check given the putridity of this offense.

And that’s really it. The Panthers have just seven interceptions as a team all year and have forced just two fumbles—seriously, two!—and thus are not the kind of opportunistic defense that has been able to take advantage of Ridder’s major mistakes. So long as Ridder can settle down a bit from last week’s highly chaotic, deeply frustrating performance and the Falcons can run, they shouldn’t have trouble scoring enough to stay ahead of Carolina, which has to contend with an Atlanta defense that has at least been very good through three quarters. If the Falcons are reasonably healthy and are able to stick to their gameplan, this is the simplest matchup remaining for them.

Make the kind of crippling mistakes this team can’t seem to avoid, though, and Carolina can likely hang around long enough to cause chaos at the end. If that happens and Atlanta loses, the season is all but officially over, and the Falcons will become one of just two teams to lose to the Panthers this year. For their sake and for ours, this has to be a solid game from Atlanta.