The Atlanta Falcons need a fast start. The confidence boost that would come from a 1-0 record, the long-term divisional advantage of having a 1-0 record to kick things off in the NFC South, and the perception value of knocking off a rival en route to the first 1-0 start since 2017 would be a big, big deal.
Standing in the way of those reasonable hopes and dreams? The Carolina Panthers, the team that lurks as perhaps the strongest 2024 and beyond threat for the Falcons, but a team likely to need time to find its way. The Panthers are hoping they have their long-term coaching staff and franchise quarterback, but the great re-tooling of a roster that (also) just finished 7-10 is still a work in progress. The Falcons would seem to have the talent advantage on paper, but games are not played on paper, and NFC South matchups always have the potential to go wildly off the rails.
Let’s take a moment to appraise the Panthers and this Week 1 matchup, which will test Atlanta’s mettle and show us if this team is immediately ready for primetime. Here’s what you ought to know about the matchup ahead.
Falcons - Panthers Rankings
|Passing Yards Against
|Rushing Yardage Against
|Passing Yards Against
|Rushing Yardage Against
The Falcons and Panthers had fairly similar seasons, which might have been why their matchups were so chaotic. Both did not turn the ball over frequently but struggled on defense and boasted lackluster passing attacks paired with effective rushing attacks; the difference was that the Falcons were a little bit better offensively and a little bit worse defensively. They even had identical numbers of turnovers surrendered and forced in 2022, so it was not surprising to see the records also looking identical at the end of the season. The Falcons just had a bit more stability to look forward to than Carolina, who tore it all down at the end of the season.
The good news for both teams is that they replaced their lackluster quarterback options and bolstered their offenses somewhat; the bad news for the Panthers is that their talent level outside of quarterback just isn’t on the same level as Atlanta’s. More on that in a moment.
How the Panthers have changed
Carolina was an ever-shifting team last year, with Matt Rhule getting fired, quarterback changes and trades aplenty, and so on and so forth. A franchise that made a lot of bad, dumb decisions—as a fan of a franchise that has made plenty of bad, dumb decisions, I can say that—now has to dig their way out of the giant hole they’ve created for themselves.
The good news, from Carolina’s perspective, is that they have a solid headstart. They managed to hire Frank Reich, who actually started a few games for them in their initial season, as their new coach, and he’s an extremely solid hire who was railroaded in Indianapolis. They traded quite a bit to go get Bryce Young, who despite his Super-Mario-before-the-mushroom size has all the tools you need to be a quality quarterback in this league. And they re-tooled the roster as much as they could, trying to pare underachieving players and give the new coaching staff options they like.
What is that all going to add up to? For the 2023 season, the Panthers may be in a similar position to the 2022 Falcons: Improving in terms of the on-field product without actually exceeding the previous year’s win total. I’m especially dubious about Carolina’s improvements on offense, where they’re counting on good health and big contributions from rookies and players who need to improve significantly to raise the floor and ceiling of one of the league’s more forgettable 2022 offenses. They’ll get there eventually if Young is any good, as he should be, but the early returns are unlikely to be pretty.
For the long haul, though, the strength of the coaching staff and the good bones of this roster make Carolina a potential threat to the Falcons for years to come in the NFC South. That makes this first matchup between two new-look teams intriguing both here and now and as a preview of what might become a more significant rivalry soon.
What to know about Sunday’s game
The Panthers offense has potential, but also more question marks than Riddler’s pajamas. Young is a dynamic talent who will be throwing to a receiving corps made up of options dealing with injury (D.J. Chark, Terrace Marshall) and relatively unproven players (rookie Jonathan Mingo, Laviska Shenault). Hayden Hurst and Miles Sanders at tight end and running back, respectively, may absorb more targets against Atlanta, which also makes sense with the Falcons’ linebacker group being a little bit of a question mark. It’s hard to imagine a group with this many question marks putting on a fireworks show against Atlanta, so it will be a good—but should not be a strenuous—test of the Falcons’ defense. There just isn’t enough here yet, especially with some suspect links along the offensive line, to feel like Carolina’s offense is going to come out of the gate ready to score 25 points.
On defense, of course, things are a little different. The Panthers are fresh off a fairly underwhelming season by their standards, finishing middle-of-the-pack in standard metrics like yards and scoring and racking up one of the highest penalty totals in the NFL. This is an absurdly talented group nonetheless, with Brian Burns and Shaq Thompson providing pass rushing punch most dreams can only dream of while Jaycee Horn, Dontae Jackson, and Jeremy Chinn provide a bedrock foundation for the secondary. There are holes here—I’m not exactly sold on a rebuilt defensive line outside of Derrick Brown—but it’s a good defense that should make Atlanta’s life difficult.
And the Falcons themselves? We’ve spent an offseason talking about them, but they’re effectively matchup-proof as a run game with Bijan Robinson, Tyler Allgeier, and a line that was absurdly good at paving the way a year ago. The passing game is less certain, and thus I’d expect the Falcons to try to bludgeon Carolina early and often on the ground and mix in some shots for Desmond Ridder to get comfortable, similar to what the team tried to do early on with both Ridder and Marcus Mariota a year ago. Defensively, it’ll be about harrying Young (which they’re better equipped to do) and limiting big plays downfield (which should be doable with Carolina’s offensive issues). It’s a straightforward matchup for the Falcons, who just need to play their preferred game without too many mistakes to have an excellent chance of winning this one. History favors them, even if history sometimes terrifies us.
Among Bryce Young’s opening-day challenges: Quarterbacks drafted 1st overall are 0-13-1 in their first career start over the last 20 years. The last to win was David Carr in 2002, when the Texans beat the Cowboys in the first game in franchise history, per @ESPNStatsInfo— Ed Werder (@WerderEdESPN) September 5, 2023
This is in many ways an ideal first game for Atlanta, as it pits an improved squad against a scrappy divisional rival they should beat. It’s all about how hot the Falcons start and how real their 2023 improvement is, and Carolina is just talented and well-coached enough to steal one away if the Falcons are slow and sloppy to begin the year. Make no mistake, though: This should be the dawn of a new era in Atlanta, and they should start 1-0 for the first time in a long while.