A lot has changed since the beginning of the season. The Panthers have learned what it takes to win, while the Falcons are desperately trying to keep their listing ship afloat after a series of injuries decimated both sides of the football. These teams play each other tough, there's no doubting that -- but the relatively healthy Panthers should have no problem dispatching a weakened Atlanta team, heavy emphasis on "should."
Atlanta has won five of the last six game between the teams, including three since Cam Newton was drafted, but they've yet to face Newton 2.0. This latest model has a whole host of new features, including accurate short passing, excellent decision making and a grinding offense that has the ability to control the clock and force teams to play catch up.
The Panthers are having more success the less DeAngelo Williams is used. It's a strange paradox resulting from a run-first team leaning more on its quarterback. Williams carried the ball 62 times in the first three games of the season as the team began 1-2 with poor play at quarterback. Since finding their stride Williams' touches have been limited, carrying the ball 40 times in the team's last three wins.
It's not a slight on the veteran running back, but rather an understanding that putting the ball in Newton's hands is how the team will win.
Atlanta was supposed to become a balanced offensive team with the addition of Steven Jackson, but the free agent acquisition has been a nightmare. He's missed multiple games due to injury, and when he's been on the field the 30-year-old running back had struggled, averaging just 3.3 yards per carry.
When you factor in Newton's ability to run the ball with the defense's knack for stuffing runners it's hard to believe the Falcons can gain ground in this facet of the game.
This is where things get really interesting. On the one hand you have Matt Ryan, on pace for the best season of his career despite the team's struggles and on the other you have Newton, who has been sensational in recent games -- despite facing poor competition.
If the Atlanta Falcons were healthy this would be an easy call. Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez are too good for the Panthers secondary to match up with, and Luke Kuechly is hot-and-cold at covering elite tight ends. As it stands the hobbled offense is difficult to predict, and when you pair that with the team's struggles on the offensive line there's a potential for Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson (if healthy) to have big days.
With the exception of Peyton Manning, Cam Newton has been the best quarterback in the NFL over the last three weeks. He's completing 77-percent of his passes and taking care of the football. Look at this matchup top to bottom and Carolina is ahead.
This wont be a trap game, it shouldn't be a trap game. The Carolina Panthers are well aware of what the Atlanta Falcons can do on offense and wont allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security. It's true that bigger games are waiting around the corner, but this is another game this team should win by virtue of its strengths on the defensive line and quarterback position.
Atlanta will be back and healthy in 2014, but for now they are a shell of their former selves. The Panthers match up very well, and should secure their fifth win of the season.
Carolina Panthers 34 - Atlanta Falcons 20