Scott Fowler

Panthers’ home-field advantage might extend to Georgia Dome on Sunday

The Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton (1) have often had significant fan support at the Georgia Dome, and Sunday should be no different.
The Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton (1) have often had significant fan support at the Georgia Dome, and Sunday should be no different. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

How many Carolina Panthers fans can you squeeze into the Georgia Dome?

We will know the answer on Sunday, as Carolina fans once again head south on Interstate 85 in full force for a game that means far more to the Panthers than to the Atlanta Falcons.

The Panthers always seem to be playing for something this time of year in Atlanta, and this time it’s homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.

At 14-0, Carolina has everything in front of it.

At 7-7, Atlanta has nothing left except the next two games.

The Panthers have often put somewhere around 5,000 to 15,000 fans into the Georgia Dome.

“Our fans have traveled very nicely for us,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Hopefully we’ll have that type of support again.”

My hunch is that it will be a lot more than that this time around – maybe 25,000. It’s a four-hour drive from Charlotte and Falcons fans seem quite willing to sell their tickets online this time of year. Those Atlanta fans are deserting another ship sinking in the red clay of Georgia in favor of after-Christmas sales. And really, who can blame them?

The Panthers are trying to finish out the regular season undefeated, and Atlanta is finished, period. Once 5-0, the Falcons have gone 2-7 over their past nine weeks – including a 38-0 beatdown administered by Carolina in Charlotte just two weeks ago. In that game, Carolina led 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and basically coasted to the end, as the Falcons seemed to have no clue that Ted Ginn Jr. was fast or that Cam Newton was pretty good.

But the Falcons have their own weapons. Julio Jones leads the NFL with 118 receptions and running back Devonta Freeman needs 93 yards for his first career 1,000-yard season. And Atlanta’s defense isn’t as horrific as you might think if you had only watched the 38-0 game – that was the only time in the Falcons’ past eight games that they gave up more than 24 points.

Still, this season’s Panthers-Falcons rivalry reminds me a little of 2002. That was back when Michael Vick was in his prime – as Newton is today. The Falcons first put a 30-0 whipping on Carolina, and the Panthers talked tough about what would change the next time around.

And did something change? Yes. It got worse. Atlanta won 41-0 in the rematch.

The Panthers played Chris Weinke, Rodney Peete and Randy Fasani at quarterback in those two games. Atlanta has Ryan now, who is a lot better than any of those guys. But the overall talent level difference in these two teams is still striking. Carolina had 10 Pro Bowl players announced this week; Atlanta had two (Jones and Freeman).

Running back Jonathan Stewart won’t be available for the second straight week because of a foot injury, but the other nine Carolina Pro Bowlers should be playing. That and a quasi-home crowd in the Georgia Dome should be more than enough for win No. 15, you would think.

But there is no such thing as a sure thing in the NFL. That’s why it’s so hard to get to 14-0, and that’s why it will still be so difficult for the Panthers to win five more and become the first 19-0 team in NFL history.

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