It feels strange to call an 11-1 team 'underachievers', but when it comes to the Atlanta Falcons as a totality, it fits. This is a team on paper who would should be barreling through opponents, routinely hanging 35+ points on the back of a multi-faceted offense with weapons all over the field. While the Falcons have earned their one-loss season, they're not dominating teams -- giving analysts pause, and raising questions whether they're pretenders. Coming off a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, the Carolina Panthers are a dumpster fire of their own, and the only way one might think they're a better team is if they're akin to a sea monster.
Atlanta's defense is the definition of 'bend, don't break'. Allowing 352.2 yards per game, the Falcons' defense ranks 18th in the NFL in yards allowed, 15th in passing yards allowed, and boast one of the league's worst rushing defenses -- allowing 4.8 yards per carry. However, where Mike Nolan's unit excels is keeping teams out of the end zone. Allowing just 19.1 points per game, they're ranked 5th in points allowed, putting them within an earshot of the NFL's most elite units.
Playing a near-identical schedule, the Falcons beat Denver, Dallas, and Tampa Bay -- all games the Panthers lost. There's little reason to believe Carolina can win this game, and citing a week four game is only setting yourself up for disappointment; unlike that early contest, the Panthers will be without Ryan Kalil, Ron Edwards, Chris Gamble, and Sherrod Martin, while it's likely Jonathan Stewart and Brandon LaFell will also miss Sunday's game.
Bend-not-break defenses excel by normalizing an opponent's performance, and being comfortable giving up yards en masse, provided the team buckles down in the red zone. Regardless of defensive front, or secondary alignment, it's a philosophy devised to stop the big play, and succeeds against predictability. Carolina are in a unique position to completely blow up the offense this week, throwing dozens of potential looks at Nolan's defense that wont show up on film.
Based on reports, it's likely Steve Smith will be scaled back, and Joe Adams will become a larger part of the offense. A forth-round rookie shouldn't be much to fear, but Adams is a complete wild card with the ball in his hands (for better, or for worse). Yes, he has a propensity of putting it on the ground, but his shiftiness, and cuts are so quick that it could potentially throw off a defense prepared for the status quo.
The absence of Brandon LaFell removes a sure-handed receiver, and vital third down target in favor of more risk. Louis Murphy will likely make the start, and while he has shown a Legedu Naanee-like ability to fail, he's shown in recent weeks that he can also make big plays. More of a deep threat, this again represents a riskier approach to the offense, and something that could throw off Atlanta.
Carolina can get some big plays against the Falcons, but I don't have a lot of faith they can punch it in. In terms of randomness being an x-factor, the Panthers can come out in front.
Carolina run offense vs. Atlanta run defense
It's here where the Carolina Panthers can make an impact. In their earlier contest the Falcons didn't have a reliable answer for Cam Newton's legs as he ran for 86 yards on nine carries. In that early game Atlanta hoped that athletic outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon would be their 'anti-Cam', and he was surprisingly unable to make a dent.
While the almost-assured absence of Jonathan Stewart hurts, last week proved that Carolina can still run effectively by leaning on Cam Newton, DeAngelo Williams, and Mike Tolbert. If Chud leans on his running game they can make a huge impact, whether he will or not remains to be seen.
Carolina pass offense vs. Atlanta pass defense
The Cam Newton of the last five weeks isn't the Cam Newton we saw early this season. A combination of slowing down the offense, paired with more reliable blocking has led to the second-year quarterback showing glimpses of his stunning 2011 rookie season.
Accuracy is still a problem, but when a quarterback is averaging 8.73 YPA, it's not really an issue. Pair this with nine passing touchdowns, while throwing just two interceptions, and you have a quarterback who should be boasting a record better than 2-3 over this span.
The absence of Brandon LaFell could completely kill the passing offense -- the risk is there. By bracketing Steve Smith, and covering Greg Olsen there is a big chance that no receiver can make an impact; but we've seen flashes from Joe Adams, and seen moments from Louis Murphy.