After winning 15 games a year ago, the Carolina Panthers already have lost twice as many contests this season. Sitting at 1-2, the Panthers will now visit the first-place, 2-1 Atlanta Falcons (1 p.m. ET, FOX). Matt Ryan has been arguably the best quarterback in the league, but he’s done so against some not-so-stellar defenses.
Atlanta’s porous defense and lack of a pass rush have been masked by the Falcons’ incredibly balanced offense. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman have given Atlanta one of the best duos in football, but they’ll meet their match in Carolina’s front seven. This one will be close, but I expect Carolina to edge ahead late in the game — and here’s why.
Atlanta’s defense won’t contain Cam Newton
Newton isn’t playing his best right now. He has five touchdowns and five interceptions, but he’s also played against the two best defenses in the league in Denver and Minnesota. Needless to say, Atlanta’s defense doesn’t pose nearly as large of a threat and it should be fairly easy for Newton to navigate through. The Falcons have allowed the fifth-most passing yards this season, surrendering a league-high 10 touchdowns while picking off just two passes.
Newton will feel a sense of urgency in this one with the Panthers sitting at 1-2, and falling to 1-3 – two games back of the Falcons – would not be ideal. Look for him to come out firing, targeting Kelvin Benjamin early and often. He’ll likely draw Desmond Trufant in coverage, but that’s a matchup he can handle. Benjamin has outstanding size, and after going catch-less last week, expect him to be a focal point – especially after Newton promised that would never happen again.
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Red zone scoring
A huge factor in a team’s success is red zone efficiency. Newton, given his size and athletic ability, automatically makes Carolina one of the most dangerous teams inside the 20-yard line, particularly in short-yardage situations. It has translated this season, as it has in the past as well. The Panthers are seventh in the NFL in red zone touchdowns, converting at 66.7 percent. The Falcons, on the other hand, are 21st at 52.9 percent.
Ryan has five red zone touchdowns, but he’s also thrown an interception. Newton has completed 75 percent of his passes in the red area with four touchdowns and zero interceptions to go along with two touchdowns on just five rush attempts. Inside the 5-yard line, he’s found the end zone on both of his carries. Converting where it counts will be the difference in this one.
Getty ImagesGrant Halverson
Carolina’s run defense is stout
Atlanta comes into this game with the fifth-ranked rushing offense, totaling 408 yards on the ground. Most of that came last week against the Saints, but Carolina will be a much tougher test for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. The Panthers have speed at linebacker with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, which matches the quickness of Atlanta’s backs. Not to mention, their smarts are unmatched among linebackers across the league. The Panthers allow just 3.4 yards per carry (tied for fourth in the NFL), while the Buccaneers and Raiders – two teams the Falcons have faced – are 30th and 31st in that department.
Needless to say, it will be tough sledding against the Panthers’ front-seven. Kuechly will get his guys in the right spots pre-play, which will be a huge factor in this one. The Falcons’ offensive line has played solid up to this point, but it hasn’t faced a defense like Carolina’s. Freeman and Coleman will come back down to earth in this one.