Matt Ryan owns the best passer rating in the NFL, and his unbeaten Atlanta Falcons are off to their best start in eight seasons.
Cam Newton is enduring a start to his second season with the Carolina Panthers that has been so difficult that he has been forced to deny that he is seeing a therapist.
Ryan and the Falcons have already built a two-game cushion atop the NFC South and will look to ruin another homecoming for Newton at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
Atlanta has opened with three victories for the first time since a 4-0 start in 2004. Ryan has posted a 114.0 rating and his eight touchdowns are tied for most in the league.
“When Matt is playing with confidence, I think it permeates around the locker room,” coach Mike Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of guys playing with confidence right now.”
Confidence is currently lacking with Newton, who grew up in College Park – south of downtown Atlanta. No full-time starting quarterback has thrown fewer touchdown passes than the two by the player who won offensive rookie of the year honors in 2011.
Things got so bad during a 36-7 home loss to the Giants last Thursday that receiver Steve Smith told Newton to get up and watch backup Derek Anderson play at the end of the game instead of sulking on the bench. That incident has caused some to question Newton’s mental toughness, and multiple reports have stated that he had sought professional help to deal with the adversity.
“I have not hired a sports psychologist,” Newton said. “I have no idea where that came from. I have a strong support system in my teammates, coaches and family. My focus is on improving this week and getting ready to play Atlanta.”
Newton will return to the place where he threw four touchdowns and ran for two more in a 56-17 rout of South Carolina two seasons ago in the SEC championship game, which was part of Auburn’s BCS title season.
He had far less success in his first pro contest at the Georgia Dome, getting picked off three times in a 31-17 loss Oct. 16, 2011. Michael Turner ran for 139 yards and two scores to lead Atlanta.
The Falcons also won 31-23 on the road over Carolina (1-2) on Dec. 11 to extend their win streak in this series to four. Ryan had possibly the best game of his career with 320 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions while Newton threw for two scores but was intercepted twice.
Atlanta has seen Ryan play at a high level through three games in 2012, with three TD passes in a 27-3 victory at San Diego on Sunday. The lone negative came when his team record of 272 consecutive pass attempts without an interception ended in the fourth quarter, but that is the Falcons’ only turnover of 2012.
“The confidence level across the board is probably higher than it’s been,” Ryan said. “That’s not to say we haven’t been confident in the past. We’ve had some good football teams in the past.”
If there’s any hope to slowing down a passing attack that features Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones, it may come from Carolina coach Ron Rivera’s prep work while watching the Falcons play the Chargers. Rivera was San Diego’s defensive coordinator prior to joining the Panthers.
“When they were doing certain things on the defensive side for San Diego, I had a pretty good feel for what they were trying to do,” Rivera said. “I saw some things that I saw success and I saw some things that weren’t so successful.”
The Falcons could be poised to turn this into another miserable afternoon for Newton, who posted two of his four worst passer ratings of 2011 against them.
Atlanta’s revamped secondary features newcomer Asante Samuel joining fellow corners Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson. The unit has produced a league-high seven interceptions in new coordinator Mike Nolan’s scheme.
Carolina could get three players back who missed the Giants contest. Rivera expects running back Jonathan Stewart, offensive tackle Byron Bell and linebacker Thomas Davis to play, with Bell and Davis returning to practice Monday.
The Panthers have dropped their last four visits to Atlanta.
“It is a divisional game, but the truth is, your biggest game is the one you are about to play,” Rivera said. “(But) I guess as far as the record goes and being in our division, yes it means a lot, it is a big game.”
The Falcons are dealing with a distraction following the arrest of top pass rusher John Abraham late Monday night. He refused requests to leave an area taped off by firefighters and police, with the arresting officer saying that the defensive end was “obviously intoxicated.”