Scott Fowler

Panthers, Falcons, Super Bowl hangovers and my prediction for Sunday

There’s a lot we don’t know about what will happen Sunday when Atlanta faces Carolina, but we do almost certainly know this: The Panthers won’t play a 17-3 game for the third time in a row.

Carolina strangely lost 17-3 to a bad Chicago team two weeks ago. Then, in a “Stranger Things 2” sort of moment (and don’t tell me how this season ends, we’re only on episode 4 at my house), the Panthers immediately won a 17-3 game over Tampa Bay the very next week.

Atlanta won’t be held to three points on Sunday and probably won’t be held to 17, either. I still am having a hard time figuring out what’s wrong with the Falcons, who are only 4-3 despite having all those stars back from a team that famously led New England 28-3 in the Super Bowl only nine months ago before getting Brady-ized. The Super Bowl hangover is a real thing, people, and Exhibits A and B could be the Panthers’ 2004 and 2016 seasons, with Exhibit C focusing on the Falcons this season.

Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis (58) reached for the ball last December while defending Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) in a game Atlanta won, 33-16. David T. Foster III

This will be a big test for Carolina’s offense, where quarterback Cam Newton is without his two favorite targets – tight end Greg Olsen because of a foot injury and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin because the Panthers shockingly traded him to Buffalo. If Curtis Samuel plans to have a breakout game this season, the rookie wide receiver couldn’t pick a better time to do it.

▪  It’s interesting to me – and somewhat refreshing – that Newton will admit how much he wants to beat Atlanta. Newton grew up in the Atlanta area and still lives there much of the time during the offseason. When the quarterback was asked this week if the Panthers-Falcons games remained personal to him, he replied: “Every single time. Every single time. Offseasons are better when we beat Atlanta, let’s just say that. And we didn’t do it last year, so you can just imagine how my offseason was.”

Newton has not been particularly successful against the Falcons in his career, going 5-7 in the 12 games he has started against Atlanta.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) worked to avoid Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Philip Wheeler (41) in December 2016 in a game Atlanta won 33-16 -- beating the Panthers for the third time in a row. David T. Foster III

▪  If you’re going to watch this game on TV and you also are a baseball fan, you may be pleased to know that play-by-play announcer Joe Buck has this assignment after calling the entire World Series for Fox. I thought Buck and analyst John Smoltz were really good there.

Buck will be joined by Troy Aikman in the broadcast booth at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday. Aikman was the opposing quarterback for Dallas in one of the games that longtime Panthers fans remember the most fondly – Carolina’s home playoff win over the Cowboys following the 1996 season.

▪  Prediction time. I picked Carolina’s underdog victory over Tampa Bay last week so I am 5-3 on the season. The Falcons have beaten Carolina three times in a row and, although mired for much of the early part of this season in that hangover, there still is a whole lot of talent on that roster (Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, both those running backs and on and on).

Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry (24) breaks up a pass intended for Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones last December. In the team’s first matchup in 2016, Jones torched the Panthers for 300 receiving yards. David T. Foster III

The Panthers are 5-3 overall but only 1-2 at home this season. Sunday would be a great day to get their second home win, and the Panthers are a slight favorite. But I’m just not feeling it.

My pick: Atlanta 27, Carolina 23.

Fowler: 704-358-5140; Twitter: @scott_fowler