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NFL Preview - Atlanta (11-1) at Carolina (3-9)



By John McMullen, NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - With the NFC South secured, the Atlanta Falcons have their sights set on the best record in the conference as they get ready to visit Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.

The Falcons, who will be aiming for a sixth consecutive win over Carolina, made a statement in their last game on Nov. 29, picking off New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees five times and ending his remarkable consecutive games streak with a touchdown pass at 54 in a 23-13 victory over the Saints at the Georgia Dome.

That win coupled with Tampa Bay's loss in Denver three days later clinched the top spot in the NFC South for the second time in the past three seasons for the 11-1 Falcons.

"You never want to take it lightly because it's hard to do," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said of winning the division. "At the same time, we talk all the time that this is one step in the process and we've got more stairs to climb and hopefully we're able to do that. We need to focus on the next thing."

That next thing for Atlanta is the best record in the NFC, The Falcons have a commanding 2 1/2-game lead over San Francisco for the best record in the conference with just four games to play and could conceivably clinch a first- round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win Sunday and a few other dominos falling.

"It's something we want to work towards," Ryan said. "At this point, our focus has to be on just knocking one more win off this week. Eventually, when we look up maybe at the end of the season we'll have enough to get that done. We'll worry about it right then."

Ryan completed 18-of-33 passes for 165 yards with a touchdown against the Saints as the Falcons avenged their lone loss of the season and snapped a four-game skid to New Orleans.

"That was a really good win for our football team. I felt our defense played a tremendous game," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who has led his team to the postseason in four of five seasons.

The Panthers, meanwhile, fell in an almost surreal contest in their last counter, a 27-21 setback in Kansas City.

A day after linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend before taking his own life at the team's facility, the Chiefs resiliently took the field and downed Carolina, ending their eight-game slide.

Newton completed 15-of-27 passes for 232 yards and three scores, while adding 78 yards on the ground for the Panthers, who are just 3-9 on the season.

"They played an inspired football game," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said of the Chiefs. "They did some really good things, and we have to give them credit, because they suffered through a very difficult time."

Atlanta leads its all-time series with the Panthers 23-12, including a 30-28 thriller back on Sept. 30 at the Georgia Dome.

Roddy White caught eight passes for 169 yards and two TDs in that one and the Falcons drove 77 yards in five plays late before Falcons kicker Matt Bryant won it with a 40-yard FG with just five seconds remaining.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Ryan remains an MVP candidate although he has slowed a bit in recent weeks so Atlanta will be intent on getting its explosive offense, which is seventh in NFL at 26.4 points per game, going again.

The Panthers defense, which allows 347.8 yards per game, has struggled mightily against the Falcons recently, allowing at least 30 points in each game of the team's five-game losing streak against Atlanta.

Ryan, particularly, has had his way, throwing for 10 touchdowns versus just one interceptions with a 110.9 passer rating over his last four against Carolina. Running back Michael Turner, who had a touchdown last week and is the franchise's all-time leader with 58 total TDs, has also excelled against the Panthers, averaging nearly 100 yards per game with seven TDs in the last five games in the series.

Meanwhile, Carolina has given up an average of 30.0 points per game in their last three losses and things figure to get even tougher since the team lost defensive end Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) and free safety Sherrod Martin (torn MCL/ACL) to season-ending injuries over the past week.

For the Panthers on offense its all about the explosive Newton, who has suffered through a sophomore slump for much of the season, but is still one of the NFL's most explosive players. Newton has eight touchdowns -- six passing and two rushing -- over his last three games.

"His outlook on things, the way he perceives things and the way he's handled himself the last few weeks has been outstanding," Rivera said. "He's played very well and given us chances to win. We have to take advantage of that."

Smith seems particularly worried about Newton's effectiveness as a runner.

"He's hard to bring down," the Falcons coach said. "They can run him on quarterback isolations. They can run him on the read-option. They can run him on quarterback sweeps and that doesn't even count the times he takes off and scrambles when he drops back to pass. He's a guy that you've got to account for in the run game."

OVERALL ANALYSIS

At this stage its all about positioning for the playoffs for the frontrunning Falcons. Atlanta hasn't won a postseason game since 2004 and has lost in the first round three consecutive times so it will want to do everything possible over the final month to get ready for the playoffs.

"I've tried to keep that week-to-week focus, but at the same time, we've had some sour tastes in our mouths at the end of the last couple of seasons," Ryan said. "So hopefully we'll have an opportunity to change that."

For Carolina the priorities are different with themes like fighting, staying together and playing spoiler at the forefront.

"It is about trying to win these football games and trending up. That's pretty much it," Rivera said. "We've got an opportunity to play Atlanta and later to play New Orleans and those are opportunities to send messages and show what we can do. That's why we're playing, and we'll go out and play hard."

The Panthers are generally very competitive with seven losses of six points or less in 2012 but they have trouble closing and expect that fatal flaw to continue on Sunday.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 30, Panthers 21

12/06 13:24:04 ET

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Scoreboard
Local
Final
CAR 4
TOR 1
Final
DUKE 66
UCONN 56
7:00pm Tonight
PHI
CHA
 
Final
CHI 103
NYK 97
Final
HOU 90
NOP 99
Final
SAC 107
MIL 108
Final
GSW 114
OKC 109
7:00pm Tonight
PHI
CHA
 
7:00pm Tonight
ORL
UTA
 
7:30pm Tonight
CLE
BRK
 
7:30pm Tonight
BOS
MIN
 
7:30pm Tonight
DET
TOR
 
7:30pm Tonight
MIA
WAS
 
8:00pm Tonight
MEM
CHI
 
8:00pm Tonight
SAN
POR
 
9:00pm Tonight
DEN
LAC
 
10:30pm Tonight
LAL
OKC
 
Final
RICE 72
STTHOMASTX 61
 
Final
UVA 70
CLST 54
Final
LIU 69
FIU 58
 
Final
STET 67
GSOUT 76
 
Final
QUIN 80
LEH 65
 
Final
SFLA 69
SHU 89
Final
RICH 65
SALA 54
Final
CAN 60
USB 59
 
Final
DEL 62
TEMPL 82
Final
WCU 56
WRST 69
 
Final
VERM 56
YALE 57
 
Final
SDKST 75
IDST 72
 
Final
RIDE 62
MRGST 48
 
Final
LATU 79
NICST 54
 
Final
CHAR 75
APP 65
Final
MISS 71
CCAR 68
 
Final
DUKE 66
UCONN 56
Final
BRAD 80
EUREK 38
 
Final
PEAY 76
OAKC 52
 
Final
JST 66
SMISS 46
 
Final
SD 55
MNTST 53
 
Final
UAB 70
LSU 79
Final
EVAN 81
OHIO 69
 
Final
CSFU 72
CSDH 50
 
Final
ORST 90
DEP 59
Final
PAC 69
NEV 65
Final
USF 77
PORST 40
 
Final
IDAHO 86
WALLA 39
 
Final
UTST 57
CALST 56
 
1:30pm Today
YOUNG
WILB
 
2:00pm Today
TULA
JST
 
6:00pm Tonight
RAD
SIENA
 
7:00pm Tonight
MERC
COOK
 
7:00pm Tonight
BUCK
CASEWEST
 
7:00pm Tonight
LIB
CPNC
 
7:00pm Tonight
SCAR
CLEM
 
7:00pm Tonight
CMICH
CONC
 
7:00pm Tonight
MIAMI
EKENT
 
7:00pm Tonight
GWEBB
HIWASSEE
 
7:00pm Tonight
ODU
MDES
 
7:00pm Tonight
BUF
NIAG
 
7:00pm Tonight
KSU
NCAT
 
7:00pm Tonight
FAM
UNF
 
7:00pm Tonight
NORST
NARZ
 
7:00pm Tonight
DART
NILL
 
7:00pm Tonight
MORE
NKENTUCKY
 
7:00pm Tonight
UCSB
SDCHR
 
7:00pm Tonight
STJ
GAELS
 
7:00pm Tonight
ALA
STILL
 
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HAMP
TENST
 
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TENN
TENT
 
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WMARY
WSHMD
 
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FLGC
FUR
 
7:30pm Tonight
CALST
SDKST
 
8:00pm Tonight
MTST
CHAT
 
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NDAK
DICKINSON
 
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LAMON
LSUALEX
 
8:00pm Tonight
PRIN
LIP
 
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LAM
MLGN
 
8:00pm Tonight
MINN
SEAT
 
8:00pm Tonight
LOYC
SUTAH
 
8:00pm Tonight
SELA
WINT
 
8:05pm Tonight
SILL
NO
 
9:00pm Tonight
MARQ
ALAAM
 
9:00pm Tonight
TTU
ARKPB
 
9:00pm Tonight
DEN
COLST
 
9:00pm Tonight
CREI
TXPA
 
10:00pm Tonight
CAL
EWASH
 
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UTST
IDST
 
11:00pm Tonight
UTEP
ARZ
 
11:59pm Tonight
CHAM
HAW
 
Final
PIT 1
COL 0
Final
PHI 1
FLA 2
Final
CAR 4
TOR 1
Final
CLB 4
WAS 5
Final
MON 1
ANA 2
Final
SJS 4
EDM 3
Final
LOS 6
STL 4
7:00pm Tonight
NJD
TAM
 
7:30pm Tonight
OTT
ANA
 
7:30pm Tonight
DET
NYI
 
8:00pm Tonight
WIN
BOS
 
9:00pm Tonight
CAL
DAL
 
Final
JAC 21
TEN 13