One reason to be confident: The matchup
I’m not trying to be flippant here; I just feel really good about this matchup for Atlanta.
Why? The Panthers shouldn’t be able to put a ton of stress on a Jeff Okudah-less Falcons defense, owing to injuries that have their top receivers either limited or absent for this one. The Carolina ground game is missing Falcons killer D’Onta Foreman, who signed with the Bears in the offseason, and has added Miles Sanders. Sanders did his best work before contact behind an excellent line last year (9th in the NFL in average yards before contact) and was mediocre after contact (27th in the NFL, on average, there), and is playing behind a line that’s shaky and featuring unproven players. The team’s NFL corps features a solid receiving option in Hayden Hurst and not much else. Bryce Young is probably going to be a very good NFL quarterback, but this is his first start and he doesn’t have a ton to work with.
Defensively, the Panthers are much better and have stars at all three levels, which is a concern. Still, the Falcons are loaded with enough talent to overcome that challenge, and Brian Burns may well sit this game out with his contract situation still unsettled as of the time I wrote this on Friday afternoon. While the Panthers run defense gave the Falcons fits at times last year and Derrick Brown is a menace, Atlanta should have plenty of luck running right at a pair of mediocre run defenders at defensive end in DeShawn Williams and Yetur-Gross Matos, the latter especially if Burns is out. The secondary is quality, but the Falcons are going to be a minor nightmare to defend against if they get cooking with all of their options and Desmond Ridder is at least somewhat sharp. This team too many weapons to let any defense shy of an elite one truly put the brakes on them; the Panthers are good enough to cause problems but not good enough to truly shut the Falcons down.
I don’t need to say much about special teams beyond the obvious: Relying on Younghoe Koo in crunch time is far better than having to rely on Eddy Piniero, who helped cost the Panthers a win in that wild first matchup in 2022.
The Panthers won’t be a pushover, and I know on The Falcoholic Live I was the only person predicting a double digit win for a reason. It’s just hard to see this rebuilt, healthy Falcons team not being able to deal with Carolina.
One reason to worry: The slow start conundrum
The Falcons have been a slow-starting team under Arthur Smith. You can argue that two seasons represents a small sample size, or that the talent level has kicked up a notch, and you’d be making fair cases.
Nonetheless, the facts remain. Atlanta has started 0-2 each of the past two seasons and was markedly not a first half team in 2022, with the team really only hitting its stride after the first couple of weeks of the season and in the second half of games. Desmond Ridder is, for all his fine qualities, a notoriously slow starter dating back to his college career. Clawing your way back into games when you get behind is never easy, and the Falcons fell short too many times the past two years because they were simply incapable of doing so. Giving up an early lead to Carolina, a team with a talented defense and an offense that should be able to grind time if nothing else, would be a problem. That’s precisely what they did in that second matchup last year, where the Panthers had a 13-3 lead heading into halftime that the Falcons weren’t able to erase.
Why is this the thing I worry about? Partially for a lack of alternatives, if I may sound confident. The Falcons look like the more talented team than Carolina, and as scary as Derrick Brown is and Bryce Young could be, the Falcons have been their own worst enemy more times than I can count in recent years. May this be an end to those days.