Panthers vs. Falcons: Game preview

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

And then there was one...

The next time you'll be reading a game preview it will be for a Panthers playoff game. Feels good, doesn't it? Atlanta is the destination in Week 17 where the woeful Falcons have nothing left to play for but a dash of pride and perhaps some small satisfaction if they ensure Carolina doesn't earn the top seed in the NFC.

It's strange to feel sorry for a division rival, but the 2013 season has been brutal to the Atlanta Falcons. Perhaps it's because of a class act like Tony Gonzalez missing the playoffs in his final year, but football hasn't been fair to the ATL.

These feelings of remorse wont last long. Watch this team select Jadeveon Clowney in the 2014 draft, then I can go back to disliking them wholeheartedly.

Passing game

Matt Ryan has been really good in 2013, but completely lost because of Atlanta's struggles. He's completing over 65-percent of his passes, thrown for more than 4,000 yards and mitigated the loss of Julio Jones by turning Harry Douglas into a legitimate threat.

Ryan has thrown a uncharacteristic 16 interceptions (the most of his career) but this is largely by virtue of teams having no reason to respect Atlanta's run game. It comes down to keying on the pass and asking him to shoulder the burden for the entire offense, which is too much to bear.

Gonzalez will get his yards against the Panthers linebackers, and the secondary isn't talented enough to stop Roddy White and Douglas, but it's unclear if Ryan will have the time he needs to make throws. The Falcons offensive line has surrendered 35 sacks this year, and now face Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy.

Flip to the Panthers and it's a total mess. Carolina managed to limp through Week 16 without Steve Smith, but the offense took a huge hit when No. 89 was off the field. He will almost assuredly miss this game, turning the contest into a schematic battle where it's on Mike Shula to find a way to work around the loss of Smith -- hopefully with a greater emphasis on screen passes.

The Falcons have the more potent passing offense, which takes a large hit due to their inability to protect Ryan. Losing Smith is a greater factor in this matchup, however.

Edge: Falcons

Running game

Now we're getting somewhere. It's Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and the league's worst running offense against the league's second ranked run defense.

Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short are going to collapse Atlanta's interior blocking, and if someone should squeeze through it's up to the ever-reliable Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis to stop them. This isn't a matchup, it's a bloodbath.

DeAngelo Williams has really found his form in recent weeks, and Cam Newton has a well-established history of thriving on the ground against Atlanta (307 yards in five games). Add Mike Tolbert to the mix and there's simply too much power in the run game for the Falcons to stop, even with Nate Chandler and Byron Bell being tasked as the offense's top run blockers.

Edge: Panthers

Overall outlook

No game is created equal, and this game is poised to be a blowout. Anything can happen in the NFC South, yes we know that -- but there's simply too much on the line for Carolina to be caught in a trap game.

A win guarantees the Panthers an NFC South crown, a win and Seattle loss could mean home field advantage in the playoffs. Stunning stuff from a team that lost a Buffalo and was embarrased by Arizona. What a year it has been, and such a pleasure writing for you.

Final score: Carolina Panthers 28, Atlanta Falcons 9

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