The Panthers are coming off perhaps the most unconvincing win in the history of football. If the Panthers vs. Buccaneers game was decided by boxing judges, Tampa Bay would have won via unanimous decision. Luckily for the Panthers, the game is instead by the amount of points on the scoreboard, and the Panthers allegedly scored more of them than the Bucs.
The various strokes of serendipity that aided the Panthers’ most recent win shouldn’t be counted on moving forward, but they’ve been helping in the present. In the last 4 games, the Panthers defense has been on the field for 46 drives. In those 46 drives, they’ve forced just 10 punts. 11 drives have ended in turnovers and 3 have ended in missed field goals. In that same time, the defense has allowed 5.9 yards per play, which would fall right in between the Buccaneers and Patriots as the 2nd worst mark in the league if extrapolated to a full season’s worth of games. It’s been a bit of a charmed ride for the defense, and we saw earlier in the season how quickly the turnovers can evaporate.
The Panthers need a get right game, and the Falcons might be the perfect opponent for it. The Falcons have the personnel to be an explosive offense but have struggled to find their footing. In the first meeting between these two teams, the Panthers blanked the Falcons for a full 45 minute stretch of the game before an inevitable late game drive yielded an inconsequential Falcons touchdown. Here’s what the Panthers need to do to repeat that performance:
- Pick off Matt Ryan without using your butt. Matt Ryan was victim to one of the most ridiculous interceptions you’ll ever see against the Saints. The reigning MVP has thrown 11 interceptions on the season, the majority of which occur in the deep middle area of the field where Luke Kuechly likes to roam. The Panthers lone Pro Bowler notching his 4th interception of the season would go a long way towards a W.
- Get off the field on third downs. As mentioned above, the Panthers defense isn’t forcing punts. Turnovers are great, but they can’t be relied on week in and week out. The Panthers have allowed their three most recent opponents to convert 46% of their third downs, good for 27th best in the league in that time. The Falcons have been the league’s best team on third down this season. The Panthers have to step up here.
- Limit the big plays. Against the Buccaneers, we saw the Panthers give up big play after big play. Those big plays have become too common a sight while the Panthers defense is out there, and the Falcons will look to exploit that. Julio Jones is good for a couple deep shots a game, Taylor Gabriel is one of the best screen receivers in the game, and the backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are capable of housing one from anywhere out of any play call. Any communication breakdowns or lack of discipline will be punished much more heavily by the Falcons compared to what we saw from the Bucs.
The Falcons are riding a hot streak similar to the Panthers. Last week’s loss to the Saints was just their second in their seven games since their first meeting with the Panthers. The loss in the Superdome wasn’t as convincing as the score might indicate, as the Falcons had the ball on the Saints 1 yard line and came away with nary a point on two separate occasions in the second half. That won’t happen again. The Panthers defense needs to play above its recent normal if the team is going to win on Sunday and make a run in the postseason.