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NFL Preview - Atlanta (2-5) at Carolina (4-3)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - A three-game winning streak has vaulted the Carolina Panthers into the race for the NFC South, taking over a position vacated by the struggling Atlanta Falcons.
The Panthers aim to continue their turnaround this Sunday and deny the Falcons a much-needed first road victory of the campaign.
Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton seemed to be spinning their wheels in the mud after losing nine of their first 11 games last season just a year removed from a 2-14 campaign. The Panthers did manage to finish strong, winning four straight to close the season, but began 2013 with losses in three of four.
Something seemed to click after a 22-6 loss in Arizona on Oct. 6, with the Panthers winning three straight and scoring at least 30 points in each victory while allowing no more than 15 points. That includes last Thursday's 31-13 win over Tampa Bay to open their division slate.
Newton threw for 221 yards and also ran for 50 yards while totaling three touchdowns. He threw for a pair of scores, adding a six-yard TD run in between.
DeAngelo Williams logged his first touchdown of the season for the Panthers as they raced out to a 14-3 lead just 2:18 into the second quarter and cruised from there.
"Execution was the key to this game," Newton said Thursday. "We came out on fire as an offense, put up 14 points, hit a lull point, but at times we felt like we were clicking. I still think we can be a little bit more thorough going into the upcoming weeks."
That's a nice goal for Newton and company, but for now the club has to be pleased with a 4-3 record that marks the first time the franchise has been above .500 since ending the 2008 campaign at 12-4.
It also has Carolina second in the division behind only 6-1 New Orleans.
"We talk about being relevant. It solidifies what we've worked on and how hard we've worked. For a lot of these guys that have never been (above .500), me included, it's great," noted Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.
"It just shows that we are capable, a team that is getting better and better. We've got a long way to goes, by no means have we arrived, but our intent is to continue to play hard, win football games, stay above it and give ourselves a chance."
The Falcons have not been giving themselves a chance as they have gotten off to a 2-5 start, the worst for the franchise since going 1-6 in 2007. The next season saw Mike Smith take over as head coach and produced an 11-5 mark and playoff berth.
Atlanta went 13-3 a season ago and figured to be major contenders this year, but last Sunday's 27-13 setback to the Arizona Cardinals was its fourth loss in five games.
Matt Ryan was forced to throw the ball 61 times, completing 34 passes for 301 yards. He threw a touchdown pass as well, but was intercepted four times and sacked another on another four instances.
Smith mentioned the amount of pressure his quarterback was under, but Ryan put the blame on his own shoulders.
"I can't do it. You can't make those plays and expect your team to win. You can't make those plays and think you're giving your team a chance to win. I have to clean those up. I got to find a way to make sure those don't happen again," said Ryan.
Despite Steven Jackson returning from a four-game absence due to a hamstring injury, but Atlanta rushed for just 27 yards in the game. Wide receiver Roddy White also missed his second straight game due to ankle and hamstring issues.
Atlanta has lost all three of its road games this season and faces a steep climb towards a playoff spot.
"Well, I think we have been in (playoff) mode for three weeks to be quite honest with you," noted Smith. "Our team talking about one game at a time, digging out of the hole we are in, and the only way you can do it is take it one day at a time. You can't look down the road."
What is down the road for the Falcons is a meeting with Newton, who had an impressive outing when the clubs met for the second time last season. The Panthers quarterback threw for 287 yards and ran for another 116 in the 30-20 home win while becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 250 passing yards, 100 rushing yards and a touchdown pass and run in the same game.
Carolina snapped a five-game slide to Atlanta, which has won seven of the last 10 meetings under Smith and leads the all-time series 23-13.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Last week's turnover issues aside, the Falcons still rank fourth overall in passing offense (300.4 yards per game) and 11th in total offense (362.9 YPG), though they have not cracked the 300-yard mark in back-to-back games without White and wideout Julio Jones, lost for the season with a foot injury.
Atlanta will have to clean things up in a hurry as it will face one of the league's top defenses. Carolina ranks second in giving up just 13.7 points per game, is third in total defense (301.4 YPG) and second versus the run.
Carolina held Tampa Bay to 48 yards rushing last Thursday and got a pair of sacks from Charles Johnson and one by fellow defensive end Greg Hardy. The duo rank first and second on the team in sacks with six and five, respectively, while stud linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the team with 56 tackles.
The Panthers have given up six passing touchdowns all season and should have Johnson, a Georgia native, available this weekend despite his exit late last Thursday due to a groin injury.
Ryan has thrown for 2,518 yards with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 career games versus the Panthers. He has multiple touchdown passes in each of the last three meetings and has found a new target in wide receiver Harry Douglas since losing Jones and White.
Douglas had a career-high 12 receptions for 121 yards with a game-high 18 targets against the Cardinals, marking the first time in his career he has posted back-to-back 100-yard receiving games. He has 19 catches for 270 yards in his last two games.
Keeping Carolina's pressure off Ryan will be key. Atlanta allowed nine sacks over its first six games before yielding four last weekend.
Getting White back could help and his presence may open up the field for the run game, which ranks last in the NFL with 62.4 YPG. Jackson has just six yards on 11 carries in his return, while Jacquizz Rodgers managed eight on two attempts.
Ryan led the club with a single 13-yard run.
"We weren't able to move the line of scrimmage. Whether it was Steven Jackson or Jacquizz Rodgers running the football, they never really got a chance to get it going," said Smith. "To run the football you have to win the line of scrimmage, and it is not just the offensive line that is involved when you win the line of scrimmage. You have to win at the tight end and wide receiver position as well, especially when you play eight man fronts, which (the Cardinals) did a bunch."
Smith noted earlier in the week White was making progress, though the receiver did not practice on Wednesday.
Atlanta's defense has logged at least three sacks in three consecutive games and saw cornerback Asante Samuel notch his first interception of the season last time out, but will need to try and keep fresh bodies out on the field as the Panthers lead the NFL in average time of possession per game at 33 minutes, 40 seconds.
That begins with Newton and company not turning the ball over and the club has a plus-6 turnover differential. Newton has been picked off just five times on the season while throwing 12 touchdown passes and scoring another three times on the ground.
"He's just got to continue to work hard at it," Rivera said of Newton's improvements. "He did a great job of protecting the football, doing things that he needed to, making good decisions. The guys around him are making plays."
The Falcons and Panthers are trending in opposite directions and another loss this weekend could be the biggest nail in Atlanta's 2013 coffin.
Carolina, behind a confident Newton and excellent defense, comes into this meeting with some swagger and the knowledge it can't look past the struggling Falcons.
"It's big -- not just for me, but for the whole group," Johnson told Carolina's website. "We know how big this division game is. We are going to come out and try to play our A-plus game. I'm going to be trying to play the best game I've ever played. That's my mentality.
"They (Falcons) bring it out of me a little bit, but I try to come out and play every game like that."
Given Atlanta's recent struggles, Carolina might not need its A-plus game as it remains in the hunt in the NFC South.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 30, Falcons 20
10/31 14:28:46 ET