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NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - INSIDE SLANT
The last time the Carolina Panthers won in Atlanta, quarterback David Carr came on in relief of an injured Jake Delhomme, and Carolina held on to beat the Falcons, who were led by quarterback Joey Harrington. That was Week 3 of 2007.
The Panthers (11-4) have fallen the last five times they have traveled to the Georgia Dome, but if they can snap that slump in Sunday's season finale, they won't have to worry about another road trip for at least another three weeks.
A win over the Falcons would clinch Carolina one of the NFC's top two seeds, giving them a first-round bye and a home playoff game the weekend of Jan. 11-12.
And while many considered last week's win against the Saints the de-facto NFC South championship game, this trip to Atlanta is more than just a glorified bye week.
"They're a lot better than their record shows," Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said Thursday. "You look at (quarterback) Matt Ryan, (tight end) Tony Gonzalez, (running back) Steven Jackson, (wide receiver) Roddy White, they've got talent everywhere. So it's not one of those teams you can look at and be like, 'They're not very good.' They've got a bunch of good guys on their team."
The Falcons will also have a good deal of emotion on their side. It could be the final game in Gonzalez's 17-year Hall-of-Fame career, plus Atlanta could help cost Carolina a first-round bye.
"We all want Tony to win; this is going to be his last game, so we want to go out there with a victory for Tony," Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said on a conference call with Carolina media. "Then we just get to shake up the bracket in the playoffs, so that will also be a good thing. We'll be excited to go out there and play and shake up some things in the NFC."
If the Panthers lose for a sixth straight time at the Georgia Dome, and if the Saints beat the Bucs in their finale, Carolina would go from a bye week and a home game, to a wild-card team opening up the postseason on the road.
So while last week's dramatic win over the Saints locked up the Panthers' first playoff berth since 2008, their postseason could be short-lived if they don't end the regular season with a slump-busting performance in Atlanta.
"(Clinching a playoff berth) isn't worth a hill of beans if you can't win the ones that you have to. Yeah, we're excited, just like every other team is excited about being in the playoffs, but we're not going to get too drunk off the high," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "We've got a lot of guys in the locker room that are looking forward to this opportunity to not only prove to ourselves, but prove to everyone else that this is not a fluke."
SERIES HISTORY: 38th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 23-14. The Panthers have won just three of the last 10 matchups, but that includes a 34-10 victory in this year's first meeting. If Carolina wins Sunday, it will be their first three-game win streak against their division rivals.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - NOTES, QUOTES
--Wide receiver Steve Smith, who is unlikely to play in Atlanta after spraining his knee against the Saints, holds virtually all of the team's receiving records. The 13-year veteran has led the team in receiving yards in 10 of the last 11 years, with the only exception coming in 2004 when he broke his leg in Week 1.
As vital as Smith is -- he is still the guy most opposing defensive coordinators focus their pass defense on when they face the Panthers -- Carolina is better equipped to handle his absence than they were earlier in his career.
"You lose a guy like Steve, it's a big concern because he is such a warrior on game day and a productive player (who) presents a lot of problems for the defense, and gives you good looks in other areas to help other guys play better," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "That being said, it's time for other guys to step up, and they're ready."
The receivers who will combine to replace Smith -- Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn and Domenik Hixon -- may not put a huge scare into the Falcons, but Atlanta has struggled against the pass this year, giving up nearly 250 yards per game.
Plus, the Panthers have plenty of other weapons in quarterback Cam Newton, running back DeAngelo Williams, fullback Mike Tolbert and tight end Greg Olsen.
--The Panthers could earn a first, second, fifth or sixth seed in the NFC playoffs.
In order to earn the top seed, they have to beat the Falcons, the 49ers must beat the Cardinals and the Rams need to win at Seattle. Even if the first two end up happening, the third piece of the puzzle may be tough to depend on.
Sure, the Seahawks were beaten by Arizona last week, but that was Seattle's first loss at home in 15 games, so a two-game losing streak is unlikely.
"If we take care of our business and things fall into place, great," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said, when he was asked about the possibility of earning a No. 1 seed. "Nothing but good things can happen if we can take care of our business like we're supposed to. And that's what I'll say."
If the Panthers beat the Falcons, but the other two pieces don't fall into place, Carolina would get the NFC's second seed and a first-round bye. If the Panthers lose in Atlanta and New Orleans beats Tampa Bay, Carolina would be either the fifth or sixth seed and start the playoffs on the road as a wild card.
--Since they both came to the Panthers in 2011, head coach Ron Rivera and quarterback Cam Newton are often linked when it comes to overall records and statistics.
Last week's playoff-clinching win over the Saints put them at 24-23, the first time they have been above .500.
They started off their time in Carolina with just nine wins in their first 28 games, but since Week 14 of 2012, they are 15-4, including a run of 10 wins in their last 11.
"It really hasn't even sunk in yet, how fun this season has been," Newton said. "It's an old saying: 'Time flies when you're having fun.'"
--The Panthers were one of the best teams in the red zone over the first few months of the season, but since Week 14, they have converted just three of their 10 red-zone trips into touchdowns.
BY THE NUMBERS: 14.7 - Points per game the Panthers have given up this season, ranking them first in the NFL, just ahead of the Seahawks at 14.8. Carolina has never finished a season allowing the fewest points in the league.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people that were jumping off the bandwagon. 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." -- Quarterback Cam Newton, on the Panthers' 10-1 record during their playoff push.
NFL Team Report - Carolina Panthers - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--RB DeAngelo Williams needs 27 rushing yards to give him his highest total since 2009 and the third-highest total of his eight-year career.
--TE Greg Olsen needs three receptions and 70 yards to break team records for most catches and yards by a tight end for the second straight season.
--WR Ted Ginn has 34 receptions this season after totaling 33 with the 49ers from 2010-2012.
--DE Greg Hardy, who racked up three sacks Sunday against the Saints, has 11 sacks for the second straight year. He totaled seven sacks his first two seasons.
--DE Charles Johnson has nine sacks, and if he adds one more, he and DE Greg Hardy will be the first Panthers duo to record double-digit sacks in consecutive seasons.
--QB Cam Newton, who did not miss a play after suffering an ankle injury Sunday against the Saints, practiced in full Thursday. He said it is not a concern for the Falcons game. Newton, who had two game-winning fourth-quarter drives in his first 40 games, has four in his last seven.
--WR Steve Smith, who sprained his knee Sunday against the Saints, did not practice Thursday and is unlikely to play Sunday. If he sits out, this will be his fewest catches in a season when he has played in at least 15 games since 2002 and he will have totaled his fewest yards since 2001.
--RB Jonathan Stewart, who suffered a torn MCL in Week 14, did not practice Thursday and is doubtful to play Sunday. If he sits out, he will have played in 15 of Carolina's last 32 regular-season games after playing in 62 of 64 during his first four seasons.
--DT Colin Cole, who suffered a calf injury Sunday against the Saints, did not practice Thursday. DT Dwan Edwards will likely start in Cole's place if he cannot play Sunday.
Despite their record, the Falcons have enough weapons on offense to put a scare into the Panthers, especially through the air. WR Roddy White is healthy again, making QB Matt Ryan much more dangerous. Plus, Ryan may want to make sure future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez goes out with a big finale in what he has claimed to be the final game of his 17-year career. Like they have whenever they have been successful this season, the Panthers have to shut down the opposing team's run game and put a lot of pressure on the quarterback.
Offensively, the Panthers should be able to run and throw. The Falcons are the 28th-ranked defense, allowing the 31st most rushing yards and the 25th most passing yards. Even if Carolina's defense gives up a decent number of points, the Panthers offense needs to take advantage of one of the league's worst defenses, and their opportunity to earn a first-round playoff bye.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Panthers pass defense, which is ranked seventh in the league, vs. Falcons pass offense, which is ranked sixth -- Carolina's second-ranked rush defense should not have much trouble shutting down Atlanta's 32nd-ranked rush offense, but the Falcons still pose quite a threat through the air. The Panthers intercepted QB Matt Ryan three times in the first meeting between the two teams in Week 9, but since then, Ryan has thrown just six interceptions and he has gotten a key weapon back in WR Roddy White.
--Panthers pass offense, which is ranked 28th in the league, vs. Falcons pass defense, which is ranked 25th -- QB Cam Newton has not put up big passing numbers this year, and he will likely be without No. 1 WR Steve Smith Sunday. But Newton should be able to get the Panthers' vertical game going at least a little bit against Atlanta's very beatable secondary.