Watch the pass rush.
No matter who has the ball Sunday, that is the biggest key to this game.
The Carolina Panthers aren’t sacking the quarterback enough on defense and are allowing too many sacks and pressures on offense. They are tied for No. 1 in sacks allowed – having given up 12, including eight in the Cam Newton hitfest that Panthers fans cringed through last week against Minnesota. And Michael Oher was playing in that game -- in this one, the Panthers’ starting left tackle is out due to a concussion.
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On defense, Carolina’s starting ends (Charles Johnson and Kony Ealy) don’t have a single sack between them. Neither does Kawann Short, who had a team-high 11 last season.
Matt Ryan, though, is a quarterback who will take some sacks because of the deep drops he takes on many throws. He will also make some bad mistakes – but only if he’s pressured significantly. So the pass rush – or lack thereof – will be huge Sunday.
▪ FLAG DAY: It will be interesting to see how many penalties the Panthers are called for. Five or fewer would be a victory.
There has been a significant emphasis on penalties this week, as Carolina has had some terrible ones so far this season. The Panthers’ 26 accepted penalties are fifth-worst in the league, with the most notable being Kelvin Benjamin’s illegal block that nullified a 56-yard touchdown pass to Fozzy Whittaker last week.
Doesn’t it seem like the Panthers do something dumb on a kick return about every other time? A team as good as Carolina simply shouldn’t be making so many mistakes.
▪ PREDICTION TIME: I am 2-1 making Panthers picks, after missing Minnesota’s upset win last Sunday. This time I think Carolina will outscore Atlanta in a close one, with Newton ultimately outplaying Ryan. My pick: Carolina 34, Atlanta 27.
Fowler: 704-358-5140; Twitter: @scott_fowler