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Panthers have NFC South all sewed up? Not so fast

I have heard from many jubilant Panthers fans this week celebrating the fact that the team will finally win the NFC South and host a home playoff game in January after a heart-pounding win over New Orleans a week ago.

That celebratory tone is understandable. But it’s also premature.

The Panthers have to beat Atlanta in Atlanta first. The Falcons are 4-11 – the mirror image of Carolina’s 11-4 record – but they have many of the same players that got the Falcons to the NFC Championship Game only one year ago.

As Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said: “The Atlanta game now is bigger than the New Orleans game was because it’s got everything on the line. And playing the Falcons at Atlanta is never an easy game for us.”

Gross understated that fact. The Panthers have lost five straight to Atlanta on the road, last winning in 2007.

•  One of the most unusual Panther wins at Atlanta came in 2006. Chris Weinke only threw the ball seven times and had an astoundingly low 32 passing yards, yet Carolina won 10-3 because the Panthers controlled the ball for more than 41 minutes and DeAngelo Williams repeatedly ran out of the wildcat for first downs on third-and-short.

Now it’s 2013. I wish the Panthers would drop the wildcat formation entirely from their offense – it never works anymore. And Williams is in his eighth season. But one thing hasn’t changed – No. 34 will be a key Sunday.

•  Prediction time – and time for a look back, courtesy of alert reader John Wilkins of Denver, N.C. Wilkins writes: “In the 2013 Panthers Kickoff Preview dated Sept. 7, you predicted the Panthers to go 10-6 where Tom Sorensen predicted 8-8. Tom said in his prediction that if the Panthers go 11-5, he would buy golf shirts in mauve, taupe, and lavender. ... I think Tom needs to get coordinating golf pants if we win (against Atlanta) to go 12-4.”

Agreed. Tom is one of my best friends, but his all-black Johnny Cash wardrobe could use an update. Here’s hoping the pants he buys are lavender, too.

My pick: Carolina 24, Atlanta 13.