Six Points: Falcons vs. Panthers

Can Cam Newton (left) and the Carolina Panthers move their unbeaten record to 13-0 against a hungry Julio Jones (right) and the Atlanta Falcons?

Crystal LoGiudice/Jason Getz - U

With the Atlanta Falcons (6-6) losing a tough game in Week 13 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, their backs are up against the wall. If they want to make a push to earn one of the wild-card spots in the NFC, the road starts here, and it starts against the 12-0 Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers, who were nearly stunned by the New Orleans Saints in Week 13, are going to look to continue their incredible run in 2015, which has serious potential to end with a 16-0 record. Obviously, that’s a few weeks down the road, but it’s going to be one of the major talking points moving forward.

Can the Falcons bolster their playoff hopes with a stunning victory against the Panthers, or will Carolina extend their undefeated record another week? One thing that’s certain is that this game has the makings of a great one on paper, with stars on both teams ready to shine.

Here are three keys to the game for both the Falcons and the Panthers.

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1. Run the football, and run it often

Ready for this? The Panthers are the only team in the NFL who have more interceptions (19) than passing touchdowns allowed (16) this season. That’s incredible to think about, and just shows you that running the ball is probably going to be your best shot against this team. Even if the run game can just open things up for the passing game a bit, it’s going to be crucial to Atlanta finding success in Week 14.

2. Don’t settle for field goals

You aren’t going to beat the Panthers unless you put points on the board. Over the span of Atlanta’s five-game losing streak, they’ve made seven field goals that were 36 yards or less. On top of that, they’ve totaled 10 field goals during the span. It’s obvious that Atlanta is getting in opponents’ territory, but they need to find a way to capitalize. Settling for field goals is hurting their chances of winning, as they’ve lost four of those five games by just four points or less. If head coach Dan Quinn is faced with a difficult decision on 4th down and short, he should go for it.

3. Help Matt Ryan get his confidence back

This isn’t going to be easy, as Ryan seems to be lacking confidence in a big way right now. He’s thrown a total of six interceptions in his last three games, and has 13 on the year. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan needs to get Ryan some quick, easy passes to Devonta Freeman or Julio Jones to start the game. If they want to test Carolina downfield, doing it right out of the gate probably isn’t the answer.

1. Throw it to the running backs

While Jonathan Stewart isn’t known as a pass-catcher, he’s hauled in six passes over the past two games. Whether it’s Stewart or Mike Tolbert, the Panthers backs could go wild catching passes out of the backfield in Week 14. Atlanta has allowed an incredible 84 receptions for 681 yards and three scores against opposing running backs, so don’t be surprised to see Newton check the ball down a good bit early.

2. Don’t go crazy targeting wide receivers, turn to TE Greg Olsen instead

The Falcons have been surprisingly stellar against opposing wide receivers this year, allowing just 1,519 yards and four touchdowns. In comparison, tight ends have totaled 688 yards for six scores against them. Could it be another big game from Olsen? More than likely. He and Newton have been connecting on all cylinders recently, with Olsen totaling at least 70 yards or a touchdown in each of the last six games.

3. Force the Falcons to turn the ball over early and often

We know that Ryan has been a bit shaky with the football as of late, which bodes well for one of the best defense in the NFL. Through 12 games, the Panthers have totaled 19 interceptions (as mentioned above) and 10 fumble recoveries. If Carolina can force Atlanta to lose their confidence early, the Falcons will struggle to fight back, which could very well send the Panthers to three games away from a 16-0 season.