If the Carolina Panthers are going to compete regularly for the NFC South title, they are going to have to start owning Interstate 85 instead of paying the Falcons a toll every time they drive on it.
Although New Orleans won a Super Bowl with Drew Brees after the 2009 season, the Falcons have been the most consistent team in the division since coach Mike Smith took over in 2008. This is Smiths fifth season, and he is 54-22. Thats ridiculously good. Ron Rivera, by comparison, is 9-19. The Falcons have beaten Carolina (3-9) five times in a row.
The Falcons (11-1) have a collection of great skill players and enough good players everywhere else that they are in every game and win most of them. The only real blot on their teams resume is the lack of a Super Bowl win. It might happen this year.
I thought Carolina outplayed the Falcons on Sept. 30 in the Georgia Dome, but Atlanta made the plays at the end. That game was a huge part of each teams season, sending them in different directions.
• Atlanta will be quite a test for Cam Newton, who hasnt committed a turnover in the past three games and has actually raised his quarterback rating to slightly above the level that it was during his rookie year of 2011. The Falcons intercepted Brees five times last week.
• Matt Ryan threw the ball 40 times the first time these teams played. Michael Turner who almost always creams the Panthers only had 13 carries but gained 103 yards. If Im Atlanta, I feed it to him at least 20 times Sunday. That would also help Ryan stay off the ground Carolina sacked him seven times in September.
• The Panthers have lost 13 straight coin tosses this season (12 for the opening kickoff, one in overtime). The odds of losing 14 straight coin tosses are 1 in 16,384.
• After incorrectly picking the Panthers to beat Kansas City a week ago, Im no better than a coin flip myself on their games, with a 6-6 record. My prediction for Sunday: Atlanta 24, Carolina 21.