Many Falcons fans have came out of hiding this week claiming their Atlanta will end Carolina's unbeaten streak this season. They mainly cite the Panthers recent close call in New Orleans that required a last minute touchdown pass from Cam Newton to win 41-38. Divisional games are always tough regardless, but if you're asking me, the worst thing that could have happened for the Falcons last week was for the Panthers to have their worst start of the season, falling behind 14 to start, but to prevail in the end. Carolina started unfocused for the first and hopefully last time this season. Rivera doesn't take kindly to that kind of thing.
MATCH UPS TO WATCH
"JULIO COMPLETES ME."- Josh Norman against Julio Jones has been the most anticipated showdown of the season. Last season, the two split the match--each performing well on their home turf. The stakes are high this year, as the two may be playing the best at their respective positions in the entire NFL.
Norman is the best corner in the league, ruining QBR ratings. He's been so effective, opposing quarterbacks would be better throwing the ball in the dirt instead of Norman's way. The dirt can't take it to the house. Jones is the leading receiver in the NFL with 102 receptions and 1,338 yards, both league highs through 12 weeks. One will have to give, again.
Norman has won the past few meetings against Jones. In the four games Norman and Jones have both started since 2012, Norman has held Jones to a total of 147 yards, 11 catches, and 0 touchdowns on 27 total targets. That's good for an average line of 2 catches for 36 yards per game. If that's not a shut down corner, I'm not sure what is. Norman is better than ever this season so we will see if this continues.
PANTHERS VS DEVONTAE FREEMAN- While all eyes will likely be on the Norman and Julio match up, rightfully so, this one here may be the bigger factor believe it or not. Teams have had more success running down the middle against the Panthers defense rather than laterally, where the linebackers are so good. If extra run blocking is inserted it is harder for linebackers to sort through the mess and get the ball carrier.
Freeman went on a tear starting in week three with his first start, a big reason they got to 6-1 before going out with an injury. He is a hard runner, with 811 yards and nine touchdowns through nine games. Winning this match up will be the key for the Panthers in this game. We have always been a good tackling team, but players will HAVE to wrap up Freeman on the initial contact. Saw a few players last week pay for just throwing a shoulder on Ingram last week.
The only player to not practice this week was wide receiver Brenton Bersin due to a groin issue and is doubtful. Charles Tillman was tested hard on Wednesday to see how his knee would react. He also has been listed as doubtful as the knee did not respond as well as the team had hoped, likely meaning he will not play.
With Bersin likely to miss this game, the Panthers would probably use that extra spot to make rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne active to begin spelling touches with Stewart. Rivera has mentioned multiple times wanting to keep Stewart's legs fresh down the final stretch for the playoffs. Not to mention, it would give Artis-Payne some very valuable touches. If this is the case, as Jonathan Jones also reports as the mot probable scenario, it would mean wide receiver Kevin Norwood would be inactive again.
The Falcons are on five game losing streak entering this week. Matt Ryan has struggled a lot over that stretch. Panthers shouldn't have any trouble sending them to their sixth consecutive loss if they can stop Devonata Freeman and of course contain the teams best player in Julio Jones. Jones is a monster, but Norman has had his number and I just don't see him allowing Jones more than 50 yards on the day at the level he has been playing.
The Falcons pass rush is non-existent, having only 13 sacks from the defensive line this season. That being said let's not forget, Dan Quinn knows this Panthers team very well after facing them several time as defensive coordinator in Seattle. He will probably have a few things under his sleeve to try to get some pressure on Newton.
I've said it before, divisional games are ALWAYS tough regardless of records. Every team will be gunning to play their best against us from here on out to give us that first blemish on our record. But after the Panthers slack start last week, I believe Rivera noted it heavily all week at practice and it's something this team really buys into.
FINAL: Panthers-33, Falcons-13
By Tripp Morgan
Follow him on Twitter @TrippMorgan6