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NFL Preview - Atlanta (10-2) at Carolina (1-11)



By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - This week marked the 30-year anniversary of the untimely death of The Beatles artist John Lennon, who inspired many across the world with an innumerable slew of songs that included the 1971 hit "Imagine".

The positive message Lennon attempted to convey about giving peace a chance in that melody takes on a whole different context for the Atlanta Falcons.

Atlanta is not the only one dreaming of a Super Bowl title, but has a better chance than most to reach the ultimate game. But before the Falcons get caught up imagining the future, they'll be living for today when they pay a visit to the Carolina Panthers this Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The Falcons have won six straight and possess a one-game lead over defending champion New Orleans in the NFC South.

What may seem unfair for the rest of the NFC is that the conference's hottest team is that it still has to play the 1-11 Panthers twice this season. Many predict that Atlanta will win both of those bouts to punch a ticket to the postseason for the second time in three years.

Falcons head coach Mike Smith got his team off to a good start on a current three-game road trip with last Sunday's come-from-behind 28-24 victory at Tampa Bay. Smith's bunch rallied from a 10-point hole in the fourth quarter, and the coach expressed afterwards how difficult it is to win on the road.

"It is very difficult. You look at teams that are in the hunt, you've got to win at home -- dominate at home -- that's usually the formula and then be as close to splitting on the road," Smith explained. "If you do that, if you dominate at home and say you go 6-2 and you split on the road and you're 4-4, you're 10-6 and there's a pretty good chance you're going to be in the playoffs."

There's a pretty good chance the Falcons are going to the postseason at 10-2 after 12 games, but it's not a guarantee with how crowded the NFC playoff picture currently is. Atlanta would be in the playoffs if the season ended right now, but they still have four conference games on the docket. Another victory on Sunday in Carolina will surely give the Falcons the upper hand towards clinching a postseason spot, however.

Meanwhile, the disappointing months of football Carolina has made its fans endure easily translates into another Beatles' early ballad, "I'm a loser". At 1-11 after 12 games, the Panthers are what they appear to be: one of the worst teams in the league.

The Panthers may lose someone close to them in head coach John Fox if the team continues its futile sprint to the conclusion of the 2010 season. One may see frowns beyond the facemasks of the players, who don't deserve such a fate even though they're mired in a six-game losing streak.

Carolina just fell to 0-6 on the road following this past Sunday's 31-14 loss in Seattle, where Panthers rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen continued to put his growing pains on display. The former Notre Dame star completed 18-of-34 passes, both season highs, for 169 yards and no touchdowns with one interception.

"I felt like I was in control of everything," Clausen said. "The offensive line did a great job of protecting, and the receivers, tight ends and running backs did a great job. We were hitting on all cylinders. Then they dialed up some pressure early in the second half. It was just a tough second half."

Carolina had an early 14-0 on Seattle before the Seahawks scored 31 unanswered points, 28 of which came after halftime.

The Panthers have four games left on the slate, including back-to-back home games versus Atlanta and Arizona. They are 1-5 as the host and recorded their only win at home back on Oct. 24 versus San Francisco.

On a more inspiring note, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson reportedly sent a letter to more than 25,000 accounts on the team's PSL list regarding the turbulent 2010 campaign. In the letters, Richardson apologized for the team's downfalls and how he's responsible for what's happened on the field.

Perhaps the extended support from the Carolina brass will resonate with the players.

SERIES HISTORY

Atlanta leads the all-time series with Carolina, 18-12, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home series. The Falcons scored a 28-20 home victory over the Panthers in Week 2, while Carolina returned the favor with a 28-19 victory in Charlotte in Week 10. Atlanta last won in Carolina in 2007, and the home team has prevailed in the last four installments of the series.

Fox enters Sunday's contest with a 7-9 career mark against Atlanta, while Smith is 2-2 against both Fox and Carolina as a head coach.

WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan (2,920 passing yards, 21 TD, 7 INT) is closing in on the second 3,000-yard passing season of his career and is two touchdown throws shy of beating his old record of 22 set last season. He's thrown for a career-low seven interceptions so far in 2010 and is also shooting for his sixth straight win against division opponents. More commonly known among friends and teammates as "Matty Ice", Ryan squeezed by Tampa Bay on Sunday with a season-low 62.8 quarterback rating and passed for 205 yards with two touchdowns and two picks. The interceptions were his first since a home win over Cincinnati on Oct. 24, when Ryan threw for three scores and was intercepted once. Atlanta is only 14th in passing, averaging 233.8 yards per game, but has talented wideout Roddy White (91 receptions, 1,140 yards, 7 TD), who caught seven passes for 74 yards last week to set a new career-high for receptions in a season. He previously caught 88 passes in 2008 and is only nine receptions short of becoming the first Atlanta receiver to haul in 100 in a season since Eric Metcalf in 1995. White could get there this Sunday if Ryan gets enough time in the pocket. Running back Michael Turner (1,062 rushing yards, 8 TD) has scored in three straight games but was held to 88 yards on 24 carries last week. He owns six 100-yard rushing games in 2010.

The Panthers are allowing 31 points per game over the last five weeks and surrendered 21 points in the third quarter alone to the Seahawks this past Sunday. Atlanta is sixth in the NFL in points scored, averaging 25.3 points per game, and will most likely unleash the pass attack early. Panthers safety Charles Godfrey (69 tackles, 5 INT) picked up his team-best fifth interception last week and helped Carolina build an early 14-0 lead. The Panthers have been stingy against the pass this season, coming in rated eighth in that category after allowing just 206.0 yards per game. End Charles Johnson (50 tackles, 8 sacks) will be looking to build on his team-high total in sacks and disrupt Ryan's rhythm. The fourth-year pro is having a career season and has done a good job attempting to fill the void left by All-Pro end Julius Peppers in the offseason. Seattle victimized Carolina in the third quarter with an interception return for a touchdown and two touchdown runs by Marshawn Lynch. Turner will give the Panthers headaches on Sunday if they don't come out prepared against the run. Linebackers James Anderson (106 tackles, 4 sacks) and Jon Beason (90 tackles, 1 sack) are two of the best in the conference and hope to make a difference this week. White's been known for causing problems for the opposing secondary and will be keyed on early.

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

This season was supposed to be a learning year for Clausen, who got a chance to take over as the starter when Matt Moore went down because of injury early in the season. Clausen (1,056 passing yards, 1 TD, 6 INT) had his lone interception of the game returned 26 yards for a touchdown by Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu and was sacked three times in the Week 13 loss. He has been sacked three times in each of his last two games and 19 times total this season. The lack of protection isn't the only part of Carolina's game that needs improving. Pro Bowl wideout Steve Smith (39 receptions, 2 TD) is averaging less than three catches per game in his last five contests and still leads the team in receiving yards. That stat alone speaks volumes of how poorly Carolina's offense has been this season. Smith is very familiar with the Falcons, having caught 64 passes for 858 yards and five touchdowns in 13 career games against them, and Atlanta still has to be concerned with his explosive ability. Panthers rookie wideout David Gettis (27 receptions, 3 TD) leads the receiving corps with three touchdown catches. Expect Carolina to try and get the ground game going with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson this week. Stewart (398 rushing yards, 2 TD) has rushed for 90-plus yards in back- to-back games and reached the end zone in the loss to Seattle. Goodson (344 rushing yards, 2 TD) had just three carries for 19 yards and a score last week, but has scored in consecutive games.

Falcons defensive end John Abraham (28 tackles, 9 sacks) hopes to leave a lasting impression on Clausen this weekend. Abraham didn't record a sack against the Bucs, but still made his presence felt in a tight win. He has three sacks in his last three games played, while defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux (19 tackles) is second on the team with three sacks and had one last weekend in Tampa. Babineaux will be a part of a front line aiming to stop Stewart and Goodson on the ground, as a productive running back is a quarterback's best friend and the Panthers will do anything to keep the pressure off of Clausen. Babineaux entered last week's game ranked fifth among NFC defensive tackles in sacks over the last three seasons. Defensive backs Brent Grimes (67 tackles) and William Moore (49 tackles) are tied for the team lead with four interceptions. Grimes had a huge pick of Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman in Atlanta territory late in the fourth quarter, returning it 33 yards to seal last week's win, and has recorded an interception in three of the past five games. When the Panthers punt, they should be aware of return man Eric Weems, who set a Falcons' record with his 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last week.

FANTASY FOCUS

Sunday's game has a low-scoring feel to it, but that won't stop Atlanta's big four in the fantasy world from slowing down. Ryan, Turner, White and tight end Tony Gonzalez should always be in the lineup barring injury. Take a chance on the Falcons' defense to, since Clausen's under center. Falcons kicker Matt Bryant is usually reliable.

Both Carolina running backs -- Stewart and Goodson -- have been respectable for owners this season. Steve Smith, on the other hand, hasn't had his usual production, but give him and Gettis starting nods this week. Panthers kicker John Kasay should be good for a few points.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Falcons are all in the same "Yellow Submarine", so to speak, when it comes to NFC teams in search of a playoff spot. Any loss from now on could come back to haunt those chances, and Atlanta has no plans on giving in that easy. Sunday's first battle of the season with Carolina will have its moments for the Panthers, with Atlanta pushing out a late score in consecutive weeks to overcome the odds.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 23, Panthers 21

12/09 15:01:11 ET