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In My Opinion

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Opinion: This Battle of Atlanta between Panthers and Falcons feels like a holiday between the holidays

The last time the Carolina Panthers beat the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome, Barack Obama was a senator from Illinois.

Remember last season? Time is running out, the Falcons have no timeouts and the ball is on their 1. Matt Ryan steps back in the end zone, flings the ball as far as he can and Roddy White catches it over Carolina safety Haruki Nakamura for 59 yards. Matt Bryant kicks a 40-yard field goal and the Falcons win 30-28.

This wasn’t a loss; this was a failure. By the time the Panthers found their way, their season was ruined and their general manager was unemployed.

Had Carolina won that game the way it has won so many close games this season, the Panthers might have made a run at the playoffs.

But might is trite. You do or you don’t. If the Panthers beat the Falcons Sunday they win the NFC South, a first-round bye and a home playoff game.

If they lose to Atlanta in Atlanta again they become one of the many, a road playoff team.

The Falcons are a nemesis. Carolina is 20-18 against New Orleans and 16-11 against Tampa Bay. But it is 14-23 against Atlanta.

And in the Georgia Dome the Panthers are 4-14 and have lost five straight. And their quarterback has a dinged up ankle and their best receiver has a messed up knee.

Yet the Panthers could get help today. The game is sold out. This is rare for a host team that was favored to win its division but has only four victories, same as Jacksonville and Oakland.

Some fans might come to thank tight end Tony Gonzalez, who caught five passes for 77 yards in the first half against Carolina in Charlotte in November (and one pass for four yards in the second). Gonzalez, 37, will play the final game of his Hall of Fame career.

Presumably the game is sold out because of Panthers fans. In the secondary market – the reselling of tickets after the initial purchase – tickets are going for more than face value.

Tom Broach of Charlotte’s Broach Sports Tours will send two buses of fans down I-85 at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. (To find out if he has remaining space, go to broachsportstours.com.)

As few as 1,000 Panther fans made the trip to Carolina’s last road game, primarily because New Orleans’ fans don’t sell their tickets.

But on Sunday as many as 5,000 Carolina fans could show up in the dome. Getting a ticket might not be easy, but it will be easier than getting into a Panther playoff game in Charlotte or on the road.

It’s a boring but easy trip. Although South Carolina star Jadeveon Clowney might make the drive in 90 minutes, it will take most of us 3 1/2 to four hours.

Be interesting to see what waits.

Despite Carolina’s record, there are reasons for optimism. The longer the season goes, the younger the Falcons become. It feels like an audition for next season. The defense struggles against the run. And, most importantly, the Panthers are a 6 1/2-point favorite.

Since they began their streak of 10 victories in 11 games, they’ve been favored eight times. They won all eight. They might not win as convincingly as some of you would like. But they win when they’re supposed to.

Not everybody does – see New Orleans, a favorite two weeks ago in St. Louis, and Seattle, a favorite last week at home against the Arizona.

Carolina-Atlanta feels like a holiday between the holidays. If somebody had told you before the season that the Panthers would clinch the NFC South with a Dec. 29 victory in Atlanta, what would you have said?

You would have said, see you there.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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