One would expect two teams with three wins apiece through Week 10 to be resigned to disappointing seasons rather than eyeing the playoffs.
That’s where the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers find themselves ahead of their first meeting of the season Sunday, however, thanks to a dreadful NFC South.
Despite finally ending a five-game losing streak with last Sunday’s 27-17 win at last-place Tampa Bay, Atlanta (3-6) is just one-game back of division leader New Orleans (4-5). The Falcons, who are trying to return to the playoffs after missing them in 2013 following three straight postseason trips, lost by an average of 12.0 points during their skid.
The host Panthers (3-6-1) are a half-game behind the Saints even with Monday’s 45-21 loss at Philadelphia, which dropped them to 1-6-1 in their last eight games. They’ve lost by at least 18 points three times during a four-game slide.
The division’s 11 combined wins are tied with the 1984 AFC Central for the fewest by any division through 10 weeks since the 1970 merger. Its .220 winning percentage (5-19-1) in interdivision games is the worst in the same span.
"Certainly with the way the division has played out so far this year, it keeps us right in the mix," said Matt Ryan, who has posted the second-highest quarterback rating of his career (93.4). "We’ve got to keep the same mindset going forward, try to knock these wins out one at a time and hopefully at the end of the year we’ll have enough to keep playing."
With Carolina still in play for a second consecutive postseason appearance for the first time in franchise history, coach Ron Rivera drew on his experience as an assistant with the 2008 Chargers, who made the playoffs despite a 4-8 start.
"I have been through this before, and I know what it is like," Rivera said. "So we’re mirroring that (team), but at the same time we have to start making hay. Eventually everyone is going to start righting the ship and if we’re not where we need to be then that is going to pass us up."
For Atlanta, a rejuvenated running game was a key component to recording a second road win in 13 tries. Steven Jackson ran for 81 yards – the most by a Falcon this season – and Atlanta totaled 110 on the ground after averaging 69.5 in its previous four games. The Falcons are tied for 24th with 97.2 rushing yards per game.
Their injury-ravaged offensive line, which has seen 10 players start, appears to be making progress. In addition to clearing space for Jackson, Atlanta gave up one sack after allowing 11 over its previous three games.
"I thought our offensive line did a nice job and I thought Steven Jackson played extremely physically," Ryan said. "He went out there running between the tackles and did a great job for us."
That group’s job could be slightly easier with Carolina defensive tackle Star Lotulelei expected to sit out due to a sprained ankle. Lotulelei has three tackles for loss while starting all 10 games.
The Falcons have averaged 63.0 rushing yards with one touchdown during a three-game series losing streak and Jackson has failed to run for more than 59 yards in five career meetings.
Carolina gave up only 37 yards on 23 carries to Philadelphia after yielding 134.8 rushing yards in its previous four games. However, the Panthers surrendered a season-high 328 passing yards, and Cam Newton threw three picks and was sacked nine times.
Rivera refuted a report Tuesday that said his quarterback was nursing multiple injuries. Newton has four total TDs compared to nine turnovers, with a 52.9 completion percentage while taking 19 sacks in the last four games. He said Wednesday he hasn’t been 100 percent "in a long time," but also added, "That’s not an excuse for me to be playing the type of football that I’m playing."
A matchup with Atlanta would appear favorable given its league-worst pass defense and its 11 sacks, which rank 31st. Facing one-win Tampa Bay, the Falcons registered a season-best four sacks and had two interceptions for the second time in three games. They’ve allowed an average of 19.5 points the last two games after giving up 31.8 in their previous four contests.
Newton has taken only one sack in each of the Panthers’ three straight wins over Atlanta. He has run for 72 or more yards in three of the last four meetings.
Roddy White has averaged 115.3 receiving yards with five TDs over his last four matchups.