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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
UVA 27
UNC 28
Final
NCCU 42
SAVST 14
 
1:00pm Today
CAR
SEA
Final
SFG 11
KAN 4
8:07pm Tonight
SFG
KAN
 
Final
WISC 52
MD 7
Final
SMU 10
MEM 48
Final
ILL 28
MINN 24
Final
RICE 41
UNT 21
Final
NEB 42
RUTG 24
Final
KST 23
TEX 0
Final
ARK 45
UAB 17
Final
UVA 27
UNC 28
Final
EMICH 17
NILL 28
Final
NAVY 41
SJST 31
Final
BST 35
AKR 21
Final
GASTATE 31
GASO 69
Final
TOL 42
UMASS 35
Final
WMICH 42
OHIO 21
Final
COL 37
UCLA 40
Final
UMO 10
KSU 3
Final
WAKE 17
BC 23
Final
BUF 14
CMICH 20
Final
MARS 35
FATL 16
Final
PITT 28
GT 56
Final
SMISS 20
LATU 31
Final
MSU 35
MICH 11
Final
KENT 31
MSST 45
Final
STAN 38
ORST 14
Final
TCU 82
TTU 27
Final
OKST 10
WVU 34
Final
WKENT 66
ODU 51
Final
UTST 34
UNLV 20
Final
MIZZ 24
VANDY 14
Final
UCF 34
TEMPL 14
Final
WASU 37
ARZ 59
Final
CLEM 16
SYR 6
Final
LAMON 18
TXST 22
Final
TXSANANTO 0
UTEP 34
Final
COLST 45
WYO 31
Final
LSU 10
MISS 7
Final
TENN 20
ALA 34
Final
AUB 42
SCAR 35
Final
PSU 24
OSU 31
Final
UTAH 24
USC 21
4th
WASH 10
ARST 17
 
Half
HAW 10
NEV 6
 
Final
SJS 1
BUF 2
Final
TOR 1
BOS 4
Final
NYI 7
DAL 5
Final
PHI 4
DET 2
Final
OTT 2
NJD 3
Final
MON 3
NYR 1
Final
STL 3
CHI 2
Final
NAS 0
PIT 3
Final
MIN 7
TAM 2
Final
ARI 2
FLA 1
Final
CAL 1
WAS 3
3:00pm Today
WIN
COL
 
4:00pm Today
LOS
CLB
 
7:00pm Tonight
CHI
OTT
 
8:00pm Tonight
ANA
SJS
 
9:30pm Tonight
VAN
WAS
 
9:30am Today
ATL
DET
1:00pm Today
CIN
BAL
1:00pm Today
NYJ
BUF
1:00pm Today
NEP
CHI
1:00pm Today
TEN
HOU
1:00pm Today
JAC
MIA
1:00pm Today
TAM
MIN
1:00pm Today
CAR
SEA
1:00pm Today
KAN
STL
4:05pm Today
ARI
PHI
4:25pm Today
PIT
IND
4:25pm Today
CLE
OAK
8:30pm Tonight
NOS
GBP
Final
NCCU 42
SAVST 14