Panthers-Falcons Preview

Earning their first trip to the playoffs in five years was not

enough for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, who still have

plenty to play for in Week 17.

With the NFC South crown still up for grabs and an outside shot

at the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, the visiting Panthers will try

to wrap up the division and a first-round bye with a victory over

the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Newton struggled all afternoon last Sunday in a crucial matchup

against New Orleans, but he again made big plays down the stretch,

throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds

left to lift the Panthers (11-4) to a 17-13 win and their first

playoff berth since 2008.

“Cam was very resilient,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He struggled

all day and he knows that. But he came through when we needed

him.”

Newton had just 116 yards passing in the game’s first 59 minutes

before taking over at the Carolina 35 trailing 13-10 with 55

seconds to go and no timeouts.

Playing on a sore ankle and with receiver Steve Smith on the

sideline because of a left knee injury, Newton completed passes of

37 and 14 yards before Hixon made his diving catch on the left side

of the end zone. It was the third time since mid-November that

Newton marched the Panthers downfield on their final possession to

win a game.

Carolina can clinch the South and a first-round bye with a win,

and still has a chance to earn the top seed and home-field

advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. That would require a victory

over Atlanta, a win by San Francisco at Arizona and St. Louis

beating Seattle.

“When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people

that were jumping off the bandwagon,” Newton said. “It was a lot of

finger-pointing and saying, `I told you so.’ But as a team we stuck

together and didn’t veer off and had faith in each other.”

Securing a bye has become even more important for Carolina after

Smith went down with a sprained posterior cruciate ligament only 8

minutes into last Sunday’s game. The 34-year-old, who has 746

receiving yards this season, will not play against Atlanta but

should be fine for the playoffs.

“It was very good news considering the alternative,” Rivera said

Monday after an MRI revealed the nature of the injury. “Where he

sprained it and the lack of severity there was, that was all

positive news. It really was. And I’m excited and very happy for

Steve.”

Rivera said Ted Ginn Jr. will take Smith’s starting spot and see

the majority of reps against the Falcons, but said Hixon and

Brandon LaFell could also see plenty of action. The team is also

likely to activate wide receiver Marvin McNutt as its No. 4

receiver.

“If we can win this week we get a break, and that’s huge,”

middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “It’s going to be tough. The

Falcons are a good team and they have good weapons. They’re much

better than their record shows.”

Coming into 2013 with high expectations after falling 10 yards

shy of reaching the Super Bowl, Atlanta (4-11) may be relishing its

chance to play spoiler at the end of a very disappointing

season.

If the Falcons win, the Saints can claim the NFC South crown by

beating Tampa Bay.

Atlanta, which has been outscored by 74 points in the second

half this season, blew a third-quarter lead in a 34-24 loss at San

Francisco on Monday night in a rematch of last season’s NFC

championship game.

“We’re just not making the plays when they’re presented to us to

win those types of games,” coach Mike Smith said. “And that’s

something that we have to continue to work on and get right for

this last game against Carolina.”

The absence of Smith won’t necessarily limit the Panthers’

offense, but they may turn to more of a ground game against

Atlanta, which is allowing the second-most rushing yards per game

(135.9) in the NFL this season.

Newton will surely find plenty of space to make plays, and he’s

averaged 8.3 yards per carry over his five career games against the

Falcons.

Atlanta is last in the league in rushing yards at 78.1 per game

and the Panthers boast the No. 2 run defense (87.7 allowed), so the

Falcons’ offense figures to rely heavily on the right arm of Matt

Ryan.

Ryan has eclipsed 4,000 passing yards for the third straight

season but has a career-worst 16 interceptions after signing a

five-year contract extension last summer. He threw three of those

in Carolina’s 34-10 home win in Week 9, a point total that matches

Atlanta’s season low.

The Falcons have averaged 33.0 points in winning all five games

at home against the Panthers since Ryan came into the league.

This may be the final career game for tight end Tony Gonzalez,

who returned this season hoping for a chance to win his first Super

Bowl only to watch the Falcons crumble.

The future Hall of Famer has still been productive at age 37

with 803 receiving yards and a team-leading eight touchdowns. He

holds virtually every major career record at his position,

including catches (1,321), yards (15,071) and touchdowns (111).