Five fearless predictions for Sunday’s NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:
1. Christian McCaffrey will catch five passes
The rookie running back had five receptions in the first meeting with the Falcons. And with the season-ending injury to Damiere Byrd, McCaffrey figures to be heavily involved in the passing game again. McCaffrey, who enters the game with 75 catches, will join Reggie Bush (88) and Earl Cooper (83) as the only rookie RBs in NFL history with at least 80 receptions. (Saints rookie Alvin Kamara also is five catches from that mark.)
2. Cam Newton will have a rushing TD
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Newton has seven rushing touchdowns in 13 career games against his hometown team, and always brings a little extra juice (and showmanship) to the games in Atlanta. Newton won last week’s game against Tampa Bay with a 2-yard TD run after he dropped the snap. He won’t fumble his score vs. the Falcons – and he won’t slow up before the goal line, either.
3. But Newton won’t get 10 carries
Newton has run the ball a lot lately, with 14 carries against Green Bay and Tampa Bay the past two weeks. And while coach Ron Rivera plans to roll with his starters regardless of what’s happening in the New Orleans-Tampa Bay game, Mike Shula has to be judicious with the called running plays for Newton with the NFL playoffs starting as soon as next week for the Panthers.
4. Matt Ryan will get good protection
The Panthers would usually put a good pass rush on Ryan in the Georgia Dome, and they’re coming off a six-sack game last week against Jameis Winston. And while Carolina gets edge rusher Charles Johnson back from a four-game suspension, the Georgia native had no sacks in the first 11 games. The Falcons have given up just 23 sacks, the sixth-fewest in the league.
5. Julio Jones will get open deep ...
And this time he won’t drop it. The Panthers lucked out in the first meeting when a wide-open Jones let a Ryan pass slip through his hands in the end zone. Jones had six catches for 118 yards against Carolina in Week 9, and went for 300 the last time these teams met in Atlanta. The fact that safety Kurt Coleman — who famously encouraged Jones after his drop in Charlotte – is questionable with a balky ankle doesn’t help. Jones’ TD will be part of a big offensive day for Atlanta, which will punch its playoff ticket. FALCONS 31, PANTHERS 27.
Panthers at Falcons
Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta
Sunday, 4:25 p.m.
FOX (Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews)