Joseph Person’s three things to watch in Sunday’s Carolina Panthers game against Atlanta:
Take it away from Matty Ice
Remember when Matt Ryan’s strong play in the clutch earned him the above nickname? Yeah, it’s been a while. Ryan’s 13 interceptions are more than any QB other than Peyton Manning, who might be out of a job in Denver. In last week’s 23-19 loss at Tampa Bay, the Falcons got the ball back with 1:39 left needing a TD to win. On the first play, Ryan threw down the middle of the field for Julio Jones and was intercepted by Lavonte David. Game over. The Panthers lead the league with 19 interceptions and a plus-14 turnover margin, and won last week despite losing the turnover battle 3-1 to New Orleans. If the Panthers turn over Ryan it could get ugly, much like last December when Carolina had two interceptions for touchdowns vs. Ryan.
The other matchup involving a Falcons wideout
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All eyes will be on the matchup between Atlanta WR Julio Jones and CB Josh Norman. Jones joined Marvin Harrison this season as the only receivers to catch 100 passes in their teams’ first 12 games. But if Norman keeps Jones in check, the Falcons will need production from No. 2 WR Roddy White, which they haven’t been getting. Atlanta has a passer rating of 56.5 on balls thrown to White, the worst mark of any WR in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. White, 34, no longer has game-breaking speed. But he’s still a big, physical receiver capable of getting open. Bene’ Benwikere, who had a critical pass interference penalty against New Orleans last week, will line up against White in his fourth start since Charles Tillman hyperextended his right knee.
Cam can continue to build his MVP case
Facing the Falcons’ anemic pass rush, Cam Newton should have plenty of time to throw from the pocket. Atlanta has collected an NFL-low 13 sacks, and no Falcons defender has more than two. Newton is coming off a 331-yard, five-touchdown game against the Saints, in which he set a team record with 15 consecutive completions. Newton, who always gets geeked up to play his hometown team, has a 15-4 record in regular-season games played in December or January. With the Patriots losing two in a row, Newton appears to have passed Tom Brady as the leading MVP candidate. But the most pressing concern for the Panthers should be keeping Newton healthy after he took a couple of big hits against the Saints.
Falcons at Panthers
Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Sunday, 1 p.m.
FOX (Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Pam Oliver)