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NFL Preview - Atlanta (2-5) at Carolina (4-3)



By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - A three-game winning streak has vaulted the Carolina Panthers into the race for the NFC South, taking over a position vacated by the struggling Atlanta Falcons.

The Panthers aim to continue their turnaround this Sunday and deny the Falcons a much-needed first road victory of the campaign.

Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton seemed to be spinning their wheels in the mud after losing nine of their first 11 games last season just a year removed from a 2-14 campaign. The Panthers did manage to finish strong, winning four straight to close the season, but began 2013 with losses in three of four.

Something seemed to click after a 22-6 loss in Arizona on Oct. 6, with the Panthers winning three straight and scoring at least 30 points in each victory while allowing no more than 15 points. That includes last Thursday's 31-13 win over Tampa Bay to open their division slate.

Newton threw for 221 yards and also ran for 50 yards while totaling three touchdowns. He threw for a pair of scores, adding a six-yard TD run in between.

DeAngelo Williams logged his first touchdown of the season for the Panthers as they raced out to a 14-3 lead just 2:18 into the second quarter and cruised from there.

"Execution was the key to this game," Newton said Thursday. "We came out on fire as an offense, put up 14 points, hit a lull point, but at times we felt like we were clicking. I still think we can be a little bit more thorough going into the upcoming weeks."

That's a nice goal for Newton and company, but for now the club has to be pleased with a 4-3 record that marks the first time the franchise has been above .500 since ending the 2008 campaign at 12-4.

It also has Carolina second in the division behind only 6-1 New Orleans.

"We talk about being relevant. It solidifies what we've worked on and how hard we've worked. For a lot of these guys that have never been (above .500), me included, it's great," noted Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.

"It just shows that we are capable, a team that is getting better and better. We've got a long way to goes, by no means have we arrived, but our intent is to continue to play hard, win football games, stay above it and give ourselves a chance."

The Falcons have not been giving themselves a chance as they have gotten off to a 2-5 start, the worst for the franchise since going 1-6 in 2007. The next season saw Mike Smith take over as head coach and produced an 11-5 mark and playoff berth.

Atlanta went 13-3 a season ago and figured to be major contenders this year, but last Sunday's 27-13 setback to the Arizona Cardinals was its fourth loss in five games.

Matt Ryan was forced to throw the ball 61 times, completing 34 passes for 301 yards. He threw a touchdown pass as well, but was intercepted four times and sacked another on another four instances.

Smith mentioned the amount of pressure his quarterback was under, but Ryan put the blame on his own shoulders.

"I can't do it. You can't make those plays and expect your team to win. You can't make those plays and think you're giving your team a chance to win. I have to clean those up. I got to find a way to make sure those don't happen again," said Ryan.

Despite Steven Jackson returning from a four-game absence due to a hamstring injury, but Atlanta rushed for just 27 yards in the game. Wide receiver Roddy White also missed his second straight game due to ankle and hamstring issues.

Atlanta has lost all three of its road games this season and faces a steep climb towards a playoff spot.

"Well, I think we have been in (playoff) mode for three weeks to be quite honest with you," noted Smith. "Our team talking about one game at a time, digging out of the hole we are in, and the only way you can do it is take it one day at a time. You can't look down the road."

What is down the road for the Falcons is a meeting with Newton, who had an impressive outing when the clubs met for the second time last season. The Panthers quarterback threw for 287 yards and ran for another 116 in the 30-20 home win while becoming the first player in NFL history with at least 250 passing yards, 100 rushing yards and a touchdown pass and run in the same game.

Carolina snapped a five-game slide to Atlanta, which has won seven of the last 10 meetings under Smith and leads the all-time series 23-13.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Last week's turnover issues aside, the Falcons still rank fourth overall in passing offense (300.4 yards per game) and 11th in total offense (362.9 YPG), though they have not cracked the 300-yard mark in back-to-back games without White and wideout Julio Jones, lost for the season with a foot injury.

Atlanta will have to clean things up in a hurry as it will face one of the league's top defenses. Carolina ranks second in giving up just 13.7 points per game, is third in total defense (301.4 YPG) and second versus the run.

Carolina held Tampa Bay to 48 yards rushing last Thursday and got a pair of sacks from Charles Johnson and one by fellow defensive end Greg Hardy. The duo rank first and second on the team in sacks with six and five, respectively, while stud linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the team with 56 tackles.

The Panthers have given up six passing touchdowns all season and should have Johnson, a Georgia native, available this weekend despite his exit late last Thursday due to a groin injury.

Ryan has thrown for 2,518 yards with 17 touchdowns and six interceptions in 10 career games versus the Panthers. He has multiple touchdown passes in each of the last three meetings and has found a new target in wide receiver Harry Douglas since losing Jones and White.

Douglas had a career-high 12 receptions for 121 yards with a game-high 18 targets against the Cardinals, marking the first time in his career he has posted back-to-back 100-yard receiving games. He has 19 catches for 270 yards in his last two games.

Keeping Carolina's pressure off Ryan will be key. Atlanta allowed nine sacks over its first six games before yielding four last weekend.

Getting White back could help and his presence may open up the field for the run game, which ranks last in the NFL with 62.4 YPG. Jackson has just six yards on 11 carries in his return, while Jacquizz Rodgers managed eight on two attempts.

Ryan led the club with a single 13-yard run.

"We weren't able to move the line of scrimmage. Whether it was Steven Jackson or Jacquizz Rodgers running the football, they never really got a chance to get it going," said Smith. "To run the football you have to win the line of scrimmage, and it is not just the offensive line that is involved when you win the line of scrimmage. You have to win at the tight end and wide receiver position as well, especially when you play eight man fronts, which (the Cardinals) did a bunch."

Smith noted earlier in the week White was making progress, though the receiver did not practice on Wednesday.

Atlanta's defense has logged at least three sacks in three consecutive games and saw cornerback Asante Samuel notch his first interception of the season last time out, but will need to try and keep fresh bodies out on the field as the Panthers lead the NFL in average time of possession per game at 33 minutes, 40 seconds.

That begins with Newton and company not turning the ball over and the club has a plus-6 turnover differential. Newton has been picked off just five times on the season while throwing 12 touchdown passes and scoring another three times on the ground.

"He's just got to continue to work hard at it," Rivera said of Newton's improvements. "He did a great job of protecting the football, doing things that he needed to, making good decisions. The guys around him are making plays."

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Falcons and Panthers are trending in opposite directions and another loss this weekend could be the biggest nail in Atlanta's 2013 coffin.

Carolina, behind a confident Newton and excellent defense, comes into this meeting with some swagger and the knowledge it can't look past the struggling Falcons.

"It's big -- not just for me, but for the whole group," Johnson told Carolina's website. "We know how big this division game is. We are going to come out and try to play our A-plus game. I'm going to be trying to play the best game I've ever played. That's my mentality.

"They (Falcons) bring it out of me a little bit, but I try to come out and play every game like that."

Given Atlanta's recent struggles, Carolina might not need its A-plus game as it remains in the hunt in the NFC South.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 30, Falcons 20

10/31 14:28:46 ET

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Scoreboard
Local
Final
UNC 66
BUT 74
Final
ECU 73
HAW 75
Final
DUKE 93
FUR 54
Final
CHA 97
POR 105
Final
NCSU 84
RICH 72
Final
FLA 1
CAR 0
7:00pm Tonight
UNC
UCLA
 
Final
PHI 91
BRK 99
Final
ORL 96
GSW 111
Final
CHA 97
POR 105
Final
CLE 113
WAS 87
Final
DET 98
LAC 104
Final
DAL 109
NYK 102
Final
ATL 115
TOR 126
Final
MIN 86
MIL 103
Final
HOU 102
SAC 89
Final
OKC 97
UTA 82
Final
SAN 106
IND 100
Final
PHO 120
DEN 112
Final
LAL 93
MEM 99
7:30pm Tonight
TEXAM
LSU
7:30pm Tonight
TEX
TCU
Final
UNC 66
BUT 74
Final
FRES 64
MAR 68
Final
CHAT 61
RMU 46
Final
EMICH 68
ROCH 35
 
Final
MRGST 51
LIB 50
 
Final
HAMP 60
AMER 64
 
Final
BEL 78
DEN 57
Final
UMASS 79
NE 54
Final
JMU 79
SHU 72
 
Final
KNST 84
SAMF 71
 
Final
ECU 73
HAW 75
Final
CHAM 60
MIZZ 74
Final
CCAR 61
LAMON 48
Final
OKLA 75
UCLA 65
Final
ELON 65
UNF 72
 
Final
UWMIL 66
ORU 69
Final
WCU 66
CHIST 61
Final
DUKE 93
FUR 54
Final
BYU 85
PURD 87
Final
EVAN 79
USF 72
Final
COL 71
GTDNS 75
 
Final
VERM 73
BRY 47
 
Final
OSU 91
CAMP 64
Final
LOU 45
CLST 33
Final
UCF 69
DAVID 95
Final
IONA 126
DELST 76
 
Final
OU 78
UGST 83
Final
TOWS 97
GOUCHER 43
 
Final
ND 81
GRAM 54
 
Final
YALE 82
LAF 60
 
Final
GWU 91
LONG 66
 
Final
VT 78
UMO 63
Final
WAKE 83
MNTER 49
 
Final
NAVY 67
PSUHARRIS 42
 
Final
NCSU 84
RICH 72
Final
MINN 61
STJ 70
Final
JVU 69
TRINBAPT 57
 
Final
YOUNG 66
UMKC 63
 
Final
UAB 43
WISC 72
Final
CORN 67
CAN 60
Final
WVU 103
VMI 72
Final
DEP 74
LEH 86
 
Final
UNT 67
MVSU 52
 
Final
MARS 68
MORE 77
Final
TCU 74
RAD 50
 
Final
SELA 86
TENT 65
 
Final
SMU 72
TXSOU 59
 
Final
UTAH 85
TXPA 48
Final
LMU 66
UCR 62
Final
SCAR 89
UNCA 75
 
Final
SD 86
WAYNEST 69
 
Final
PITT 70
KYST 47
Final
UWGB 59
FLGC 45
Final
IOWA 70
NILL 49
Final
ORST 69
AUB 71
Final
MONT 75
CARROLLMT 52
 
Final
SUTAH 64
EKENT 73
Final
NMST 78
FAM 33
 
Final
WYO 65
STET 41
 
Final
EWASH 81
NKENTUCKY 60
 
Final
IDST 57
WLVRN 60
 
Final
GEOR 66
UF 65
Final
GONZ 88
UGA 76
Final
NIOWA 61
NW 42
Final
CAL 72
CPSL 52
Final
UCD 77
UTST 70
Final
SDST 59
ARZ 61
Final
NDAK 75
ALAST 68
Final
CSNO 55
PORST 63
Final
AKAN 62
PAC 71
Final
OKST 73
TULSA 58
2nd
COLST 40
MIZST 35
 
12:00pm Today
TENN
SCU
 
12:00pm Today
RMU
LAMON
 
1:00pm Today
BUT
OKLA
 
2:00pm Today
BRO
PEAY
 
2:00pm Today
UTEP
PRIN
 
2:30pm Today
CHAT
CCAR
 
2:30pm Today
RIU
KU
 
3:30pm Today
USCU
FIU
 
3:30pm Today
GEOR
WISC
 
4:00pm Today
USB
LIU
 
4:30pm Today
XAV
SDU
 
5:00pm Tonight
INDST
ILL
 
6:00pm Tonight
WRST
CSFU
 
6:00pm Tonight
STJOE
WKENT
 
6:30pm Tonight
RIDE
MSU
 
7:00pm Tonight
UNC
UCLA
 
8:30pm Tonight
WMICH
LBSU
 
8:30pm Tonight
GT
MARQ
 
9:00pm Tonight
PVU
STEPH
 
9:30pm Tonight
MERC
RICE
 
9:30pm Tonight
UF
UAB
 
11:00pm Tonight
WASH
SJST
 
11:59pm Tonight
MEM
BAY
 
11:59pm Tonight
UCSB
WASU
 
Final
NYI 3
WAS 2
Final
BUF 1
WIN 2
Final
FLA 1
CAR 0
Final
TAM 4
NYR 3
Final
DET 5
PHI 2
Final
PIT 4
TOR 3
Final
MIN 0
LOS 4
Final
COL 2
CHI 3
Final
SJS 0
CAL 2
8:00pm Tonight
NAS
EDM
 
12:30pm Today
DET
CHI
4:30pm Today
DAL
PHI
8:30pm Tonight
SFX
SEA