A tough division match-up, the first time the Falcons see the new look Panthers and Cam Newton's homecoming- these are but three story lines that will dominate this weekend's game against Atlanta. Despite those three elements being what fans will talk about on Monday, in reality this game boils down to one base desire per team: The Panthers are desperate for a win, and the Falcons are desperate not to lose.
Superficially these seem very similar, but in practice their very different. The young, brash Panthers are desperate to hang their hat on a good, soild win against an established team like Atlanta, after coming so close for so many weeks. Meanwhile, the Falcons can't afford to lose if they want to keep their playoff hopes alive; with the Saints surging, and the NFC being as talented across the board as its been in a decade there's a legitimate fear a wild card wont come out of the NFC South. So what makes this Sunday tick? Let's take a look.
X-Factor: DeAngelo Williams' big play ability
Any talk of Williams being 'done' has been silenced now with back-to-back stellar performances. While the Falcons have been quite stout against the run in 2011, (allowing just 3.5 yards per carry on the year) DeAngelo Williams will need to be on point to help the offensive balance. Cam Newton is going to get his yards regardless, but there are times when he puts too much pressure on himself and that's when he starts to force the ball. If Williams can contribute some big gains and keep the defense off balance then the play action can start working and it's here that Cam is at his most deadly.
Ultimately I feel DeAngelo's big play ability is just starting to be tapped into and with creative play calls like last week's option I think it will be too much for the Falcons to handle.
Carolina run offense vs. Atlanta run defense
This week I'm making an important distinction between DeAngelo Williams' big play ability, and the running game as a whole. In this way I'm postulating that the run game for Carolina will be one to grind out yards, control the clock and move the chains. In this match-up I'm hardly as confident in the Panthers as I am Williams' shock and awe ability for 2-3 plays.
The Falcons have seen good running backs this season. Players like LeGarrette Blount, Matt Forte, Marshawn Lynch and LeSean McCoy. Despite seeing this group of backs the Falcons still held strong to their 3.5 YPC. It will be hard for Jonathan Stewart to carve up the middle as he's able to do around the NFL, and cornerback Dunta Robinson is a very good tackler which could limit the Panthers' ability in running up the edge.
Carolina pass offense vs. Atlanta pass defense
This could be the most lopsided element to Sunday's game. I don't see a reliable way for the Falcons to stop the connection between Steve Smith and Cam Newton. The Dirty-Bird's pass rush is hurt with John Abraham still being unable to practice this week, which should give Newton a fairly clean pocket to operate in. The aforementioned Dunta Robinson is an extremely good corner, but Smitty has beaten talented guys all year.
Furthermore, the Panthers love going to their tight ends in short situations and the Falcons don't have a reliable way to stop both Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey. When this is coupled with Atlanta allowing 46% of third down conversions this season it bodes well for Carolina.
This afternoon I'll look at the Panthers defensive chances this week in the Georgia Dome.