It has finally come down to one game for all the marbles for we Carolina Panthers fans. Playoffs or bust!
Certainly, a lot of material will be produced before this game, and by a lot of people. Opinions, analysis, and even armchair psychology will enter the picture, so I'll save that stuff for late in the week. Right now, I would just like to take a look at the positions on the respective rosters and put them through the "eyeball test" to see who has an advantage and where.
Cam Newton vs. Matt Ryan:
With both guys still fairly early in their respective careers, Ryan has had slightly more time in the NFL to develop his more traditional, drop-back style of passing. Don't let the bandwagoners of the "dual-threat" QB get you off the mark; a QB's primary job will ALWAYS be to matriculate the ball down the field via the air, and Matt Ryan has a decided edge here regardless of WR talent involved. Conversely, Cam Newton presents a more difficult player to defend, since the defense has both his live arm AND his running ability to deal with. Cam isn't yet the QB that can sit back and pick you apart on a consistent basis, but with the right help next year, he could really break out into a guy like that with some stability in his receiving corps. As I see it as a snapshot in time, the positions here are....
Let's face it: neither team has an outstanding O-line and it's the weakness on both teams' offenses. Without getting TOO deeply involved in the names of all the starters and back-ups, I'll just say the Falcons probably have better tackles than the Panthers do (my high school does too) while the Panthers are better on the interior line. Ryan Kalil, a multiple-year All-Pro center, anchors that group with rookie RG Trai Turner really showing the the light bulb has already come ON for him in his transition from LSU last year. Both lines play rather up-and-down, but Carolina's finally seems to be working better as a unit than they were a month ago.
Slight edge to Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have a nice, veteran mix of capable runners in Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert while the Falcons have a good mix of guys in all different career stages. Steven Jackson may have lost a step or two since his younger days, but he never had a step ON anyone as a big bruiser, so that's not an issue. The Falcons also have Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie Devonta Freeman, but their offensive style is more air-oriented than ground-n-pound, so they don't see the looks you may otherwise think. However, all three are capable and bring different things to the table while none of them will take over a game. Similar thing with the Panthers and their RB group, but you can't NOT count Cam Newton in the ground game somewhere because he always is part of the game plan there. However, when you consider the position itself without considering Cam, Stewie and Tolbert are probably the most physical running duo in the entire NFL, with both tipping the scales north of 240 pounds. Stewart is feeling healthy for the first time in years and he showed us last week he still has tread on the tires.
Decided edge to Carolina Panthers
We Panthers fans all know the name Kelvin Benjamin, the team's "Pretty Boy" rookie phenom. He doesn't look so pretty to defenders at a hulking 6'5" 240 pounds, however. Sprinkle in cagey (and under-appreciated, IMO) Jerricho Cotchery along with another emerging rookie in Philly Brown, and this group has actually been a pleasant surprise after some bumps in the road and a couple of roster moves during the season. While Benjamin probably doesn't have a shot at NFC OROY honors (thanks to Odell "Three Fingers" Beckham, Jr.) and Tampa Bay rookie WR Mike Evans statistically has had a better season, Benjamin's contribution to the offense is difficult to overstate. Turning to the Atlanta Falcons, the conversation has to start with Julio Jones. Julio is by far the most explosive WR on either side and his counterpart, Roddy White, is one of the best "possession" receivers in the NFL. It's kinda hard to argue against the idea that these two guys are textbook in what you want at the position...A sure-handed veteran chains-mover in White and a scary deep threat with catch-and-run ability in Jones.
Big edge to Atlanta Falcons
Greg Olsen has been Cam's blankie since Cam came into the league and is in the top three in the NFL in catches and yards at the position. Olsen's presence has probably been the single most stablizing this year of anyone at any of the skill positions on offense, including QB, considering Derek Anderson had to start two games due to a laundry list of relatively minor injuries to Newton this year. Ed Dickson has come alive of late to make some clutch catches that haven't shown up on the scoreboard so much as to help keep drives alive and allow the Panthers to finish games. HUGE help there, but that's a limited role. Meanwhile, the Falcons no longer have the retired and sure-fire 1st-ballot HOF TE Tony Gonzalez to lean on. They have a pair of guys named Levine Toilolo and Bear Pascoe. Without looking it up, I suspect from the names that Pascoe is the blocking TE? I've barely heard of either one, and together they don't even have 250 receiving yards. My bet is they're there to protect Meg Ryan and block in the running game, but Greg Olsen's 82-961-6 line says he alone produces four times that what the Falcons' TEs do. He has also made his first Pro Bowl this season...and it's long, long overdue.
Big edge to Carolina Panthers
With Kony Ealy playing for the limbo-sitting Greg Hardy, the D-Line struggled early to generate pressure on the QB. It took time for the defense in general to reset and adjust to Hardy's absence as well as so many new faces in the secondary, but as far as talent goes, the Panthers still have a lot of disruption to deal out on opposing O-lines. Charles "Big Money" Johnson is a good, steady performer who flashes great ability at times but who has peaked with age. Still, he is better than most of his peers. Star Lotulelei had a slow start (as did the entire defense) but is back to making running up the middle a difficult thing again. His twin draftee, Kawann Short, has been the success story of the D-line this season and may well be a better pro than Star. The two make up a great young duo on the inside. The Falcons lack a serious pass-rusher from their defensive line at all. Jonathan Babineaux, Kroy Biermann, and Osi Umenyiora are the ends; none of whom have reached 5 sacks in 2014. DT Tyson Jackson is the best-known name and he along with massive DT Paul Soliai are the line's strength against the run, but otherwise they have a very mediocre group.
Big edge to Carolina Panthers
Even with a good defensive line, the linebacking corps is the strength of the defense for the Carolina Panthers. MLB Luke Kuechly is in his 3rd season, having had one of the 2 most-decorated careers in NFL history for a linebacker thus far. Only one other defensive player got the DROY (defensive rookie of the year) award and then went on to get the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His name is Lawrence Taylor. 'Nuff said there, except Kuechly again leads the entire NFL in tackles. Luke isn't the only star linebacker the Panthers have when you consider Thomas Davis. We all know his 3-knee story by now, but what's really astonishing isn't QUITE so much that he returned after so many injuries to the same knee, but his level of play after the repairs and healing. Davis is a top-five OLB in his own right, and with A.J. Klein on the weak side, the group is as strong as anyone's. The Falcons have Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu, and Prince Shembo but operate out of the nickel as much as anything. With names like those at LB, it's easy to see why.
Massive edge to Carolina Panthers
Since corners and safeties' jobs are different enough, I'm splitting the two up instead of using a "defensive backs" header. The Panthers have really made strides in their CB play since the start of the season. Rookie Bene "The Fed Chief" Benwikere began as the nickel corner but has played himself into the starting role on the outside and has come a long way. He looks to be a keeper for a long time. We also have the maddeningly frustrating Josh Norman, who balances out spectacular coverage and pass defending with boneheaded missed coverages and emotional penalties. I love his heart and his god-given ability, but the guy needs to harness and focus his emotions to become a dependable player. I get the impression he's a bit hard to coach, but flashes quite a high upside that he has yet to reach, so he's an intriguing player. Melvin White finally appears to not have quite the ceiling that was thought last year as he hasn't really shown much upside past a hit-or-miss "average" corner with a tendency to get burned. The Atlanta Falcons have some very nice-looking young talent in Desmond Trufant who has as good or better upside than anyone in the Panthers' secondary. Beyond him, however, the cupboard gets a bit bare with names like Javier Arenas, Josh Wilson, and former Panthers reject Robert McClain. I'd say Trufant is tops of all from both groups, but Carolina's Fed Chief and Norman are a better pair than any the Falcons can field right now.
Slight edge to Carolina Panthers
The fans have been moaning Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud all season...and for good reason. Cleveland's TE Jordan Cameron's 81-yard TD short catch and long run was all on Harper yesterday. He stood there and watched Cameron run by him before realizing what happened. Harper was SO late in reacting, I backed up the recording and pointed it out to my stepdad, with whom I was watching the Cleveland game. He said "He was just starting to turn when the guy was by him! What's wrong with him?" I told him that's what I've been wondering all season long. If *I* were Gettleman? I'd not just bench Harper; I'd waive him and put my money on rookie Tre Boston. At least Boston has room for growth and with Boston finally getting healthy he's seeing the field over DeCoud now. Both Atlanta and New Orleans have horrible secondaries overall, and they let DeCoud and Harper walk this past off-season. That should say something about the pair. Currently, the Atlanta Falcons field William Moore and Dwight Lowery...with former Carolina Panthers safety Charles Godfrey as a third-stringer. Moore has been injured part of the season while Lowery has been amazingly healthy (for him) this season. The safeties are neither team's strong suit, but....
Edge to Atlanta Falcons
Kicker: Graham Gano vs. Matt Bryant
Gano is 27/33 in FGs and Bryant is 28/31. Both have a similar "long" FG for the year of 53 or 54 yards. Bryant has an accuracy edge, but kicks in a dome at home. Bryant does, however, have a longer track record of being an upper-end kicker.
Edge to Atlanta Falcons
Punter: Brad Nortman vs. Matt Bosher
Nortman goes on streaks where he gets in such a groove, he can place the ball just about anywhere. Especially early this season he was doing it quite well. However, he's only "netting" 36 yds/punt while Bosher nets over 40. Part of this could be due to punt coverage units as the two punters otherwise have similar touchback/inside 20 punt numbers. Bosher hasn't had a kick blocked this year while Nortman had what.....CONSECUTIVE punts blocked a month ago or so?
Slight edge to Atlanta Falcons
Special Teams Play:
The special teams has been an ongoing issue for the Carolina Panthers for years. Except for having Ted Ginn, Jr. last season, the Panthers have been unable to find a legitimate threat in the return game....unless you count a threat as being a threat to THEMSELVES. The duty seems to have gone to Breston Bersin now by default. The Falcons have an aging but still-named the same: a guy named Devin Hester. Those two blocked punts didn't help Carolina's case any and I get the feeling while watching that pretty much everyone on the Panthers' side feels relief when they don't fumble away a punt. That's how success is measured in Charlotte these days.
Big edge to Atlanta Falcons
Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye