Carolina Panthers

Falcons-Panthers a huge NFC South matchup. How it will play out, position-by-position

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton grew up in Atlanta and has a home there, where he lives in the offseason.

After seven seasons you’d think the novelty of playing his hometown Falcons might have worn off a bit.

You’d be wrong.

Newton says he takes the twice-a-year meetings with the Falcons personally “every single time” Carolina plays them.

“Offseasons are better when we beat Atlanta, let’s just say that,” Newton said this week. “We didn’t do it last year, so you can just imagine how my offseason went.”

The Panthers haven’t beaten their division rivals the past three times they’ve faced them, a skid that has seen the balance of power in the NFC South shift four hours down I-85.

Carolina (5-3) and Atlanta (4-3) have represented the NFC in the past two Super Bowls, but both are looking up at New Orleans (5-2) in the division standings midway through the regular season.

Sunday’s Falcons-Panthers game is one of the marquee matchups of Week 9: Fox is sending its No. 1 broadcast team of Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Erin Andrews to Charlotte.

“I don’t think it really matters what the records are or where you’re playing – home or away. It’s going to be a battle. It’s going to be a fight,” Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “They got the best of us the last three times and hopefully we can change that this week.”

The game took on some added intrigue when the Panthers shipped Kelvin Benjamin, their top wideout, to Buffalo minutes before Tuesday’s trade deadline. In return, they received a pair of 2018 draft picks – and a lot of questions about what an already-struggling offense will do without Benjamin.

By Thursday – about 48 hours after the trade – Panthers coach Ron Rivera had grown tired of the Benjamin talk.

“Before I forget, you know we do play Atlanta on Sunday,” Rivera chided reporters.

Kuechly needed no reminders about the recent history against Atlanta, which ended the Panthers’ undefeated season in 2015 with a Week 16 victory and swept the series last season en route to Super Bowl LI.

The ’16 losses were particularly painful for the Panthers. In the first meeting in Atlanta, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and wideout Julio Jones became the first tandem in NFL history with 500 passing yards and 300 receiving yards in the same game.

“They put some points on us. They put some yards up on us. Julio and Matt had big days. You never want that to happen. But those guys can do that,” Kuechly said. “You just can’t let those guys get off and have a gazillion yards.”

The Falcons’ running backs did the bulk of the damage in the second game last December, with Tevin Coleman taking advantage of mismatches with Panthers’ linebackers in coverage.

But those young Carolina corners who were exposed by Ryan and Jones in ’16 are a year older, and the addition of ageless edge rusher Julius Peppers has further fortified a salty Panthers’ pass rush.

It’s a strength-vs.-strength matchup, with the Panthers’ second-ranked defense trying to throw a blanket on Atlanta’s fifth-ranked offensive attack.

“It's a divisional opponent,” Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. “If we want to really get back to what we were as a dominant, NFC South team, it's games like this that we have to win.”

A position-by-position breakdown in a game that will give the winner the early upper hand in staying at or near the top of a crowded division:

Quarterback

Panthers: When Kelvin Benjamin went down with a season-ending knee injury in 2015, many argued that it made Cam Newton a better quarterback because he went through all of his reads and didn’t simply lock in on one receiver. With Benjamin gone, Newton has to start hitting some deep throws to get teams to pull a safety out of the box and create room for the running game.

Cam Newton
Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) will lean more on wide receiver Devin Funchess (17) with Kelvin Benjamin having been traded to Buffalo. Nam Y. Huh AP

Falcons: Matt Ryan’s already thrown nearly as many interceptions (six) as he did during his MVP season last year (seven). But a couple of those bounced off receivers’ hands. Ryan has torched the Panthers in the last three meetings, completing 78 percent of his passes for an average of 362 yards, with a total of seven touchdowns and one interception.

Advantage: Falcons. Newton has led the Panthers in rushing the last three games, but his passing has been erratic since his back-to-back, 300-yard games at New England and Detroit. In a matchup between the last two league MVPs, Ryan gets the edge because of his recent success vs. Carolina.

Running backs

Panthers: Carolina’s north-south running game showed a pulse last week at Tampa Bay, with Cameron Artis-Payne providing a spark off the bench and Jonathan Stewart diving for a 1-yard touchdown. Christian McCaffrey again will get his share of touches, but it’s time for Mike Shula to give him a shot down the field.

Devante Freeman
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, left, handing off to running back Devonta Freeman hasn’t been the weapon it was in 2016, but the potential is there. Steven Senne AP

Falcons: New offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has been criticized for under-utilizing Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly hasn’t seen it. “I don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said. “They’re both studs.” The two averaged 6.5 yards per carry against Carolina last December, and Coleman broke off a pair of big plays.

Advantage: Falcons. As active and productive as McCaffrey has been, particularly in the passing game, the Falcons’ 1-2 punch of speed and power is as good as any in the league.

Wide receivers

Panthers: The comparisons between the Benjamin-less receiving corps in 2015 and this year overlook this fact: That group had a pair of proven receivers in Ted Ginn Jr. and Jerricho Cotchery. These Panthers have young WRs who have shown flashes of being consistent NFL playmakers.

Falcons: Julio Jones has put up pretty pedestrian numbers (37 catches for 540 yards and a touchdown) by his standards. The Panthers’ CBs have played a lot of man coverage, and sticking with Jones all game will be a tall order for James Bradberry. Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel also have big-play capabilities.

Advantage: Falcons. Atlanta receivers have had their share of drops this season, including a couple that resulted in interceptions. But any receiving group led by Jones is going to have the edge.

Offensive line

Panthers: Carolina is coming off one of its best performances up front – Newton was not sacked or hit once last week at Tampa Bay. The Panthers’ line is banged up, with Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil out again with a neck injury and right guard Trai Turner – another Pro Bowler – limited by a knee injury.

Alex Mack
Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack (51) has been key to an offensive line that has kept pressure off quarterback Matt Ryan. Duane Burleson AP

Falcons: The Falcons’ offensive inconsistencies can’t be traced to the line, which has been pretty stout. Center Alex Mack headlines a group that has helped the Falcons rank fourth in the league at 4.8 yards per rushing play and has allowed only 12 sacks in seven games.

Advantage: Even. Tackles Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams gave Newton a clean pocket vs. the Bucs, with neither allowing a pressure. Tyler Larsen has played well in place of Kalil, though the line has had some communication issues. Falcons right guard Wes Schweitzer has struggled in his first year as a starter.

Defensive line

Panthers: The Panthers are second in the NFL in sacks (27, led by Peppers, who has 7.5), and fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (81.6).

Short Peppers
The Carolina Panthers defensive line, including tackle Kawann Short, left, and end Julius Peppers, right, has been a force so far. It’ll face a stout Falcons offensive line on Sunday in Charlotte. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Falcons: Atlanta ranks No. 10 in the NFL in stopping the run, and has recorded a mid-league 17 sacks.

Advantage: Panthers. The combination of Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, causing disruption and stopping the run on the inside, with pass-rushers Mario Addison and Peppers on the outside might be a little too much to handle for a so-far stout Falcons line.

Linebackers

Panthers: With Kuechly back and Thomas Davis closer to full health, Carolina’s linebackers will control the flow against Atlanta. Expect Shaq Thompson to be used in his hybrid “Buffalo nickel” role as well, matching up against the Falcons’ shifty, versatile running backs.

Luke Kuechly
Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly (59) has led a unit that is among the NFL’s best so far in 2017. Phelan Ebenhack AP

Falcons: Atlanta has plenty of athleticism behind Vic Beasley, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. The three have combined for 78 tackles, six sacks, eight passes defensed, an interception and two forced fumbles.

Advantage: Panthers. Atlanta’s linebackers are talented, but there is no match for Kuechly and Davis’ savvy.

Defensive backs

Panthers: Carolina’s secondary has vastly improved from last year, ranking third in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, at 182. Veteran safety Kurt Coleman has also returned after injury, further solidifying the unit.

Falcons: Atlanta’s pass defense has been porous, ranking No. 23 in the league behind safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal, and cornerbacks Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant.

Advantage: Falcons. Statistically, Carolina’s secondary is playing better. But the Panthers receivers, minus Kelvin Benjamin, have yet to prove themselves and give Atlanta an opportunity to capitalize.

Special teams

Panthers: While Carolina has yet to break a returner loose for a touchdown, its punting unit has shown a talent in recent weeks for flipping the field. Punter Michael Palardy has a net punting average of 43.3 yards, sixth in the NFL, and a 60-yard long. Kicker Graham Gano also has been nearly perfect on the season, making 17 of 18 field goal attempts with a 48-yard long.

Gano Palardy
The Carolina Panthers’ special teams have been solid, with kicker Graham Gano (8) almost perfect and punter Michael Palardy (5) flipping the field. Winslow Townson AP

Falcons: Atlanta kicker Matt Bryant has hit 14 of his 17 field goal attempts with a 53-yard long. The Falcons also have a solid returner in Andre Roberts, who in 2015 had a 99-yard touchdown return against Carolina. Roberts’ long in kick returns this season is 61 yards.

Advantage: Even. While the Panthers have been extremely consistent, they need an explosive play – which statistically, the Falcons are more likely to have Sunday despite a bit of inconsistency with their specialists.

Coaching

Panthers: Steve Wilks’ defense has been a powerhouse for most of the season, and has not allowed an offensive touchdown in four of eight games played. But on offense, the Panthers have not yet looked cohesive under Shula this season – despite an infusion of versatile weapons brought in via the 2017 draft.

Falcons: Sarkisian, has drawn criticism for not utilizing the Falcons’ very talented, very versatile running backs with the success of former coordinator Kyle Shanahan.

Advantage: The slight edge goes to Carolina, because of Wilks’ strength as a coordinator. Shula and Sarkisian both have ample offensive talent, but neither coordinator has found his rhythm.

Intangibles

Panthers: Carolina is playing at home after a two-week road stretch, which will most certainly be a plus.

Falcons: Atlanta has been better statistically on the road this season, and is 3-1 when in an opposing stadium.

Advantage: Panthers. Carolina will create a tough enough environment at Bank of America Stadium to discombobulate an offense that is already struggling to be cohesive.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

Falcons at Panthers

Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte

When: Sunday, 1 p.m. (Fox)

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