Atlanta's pass rush versus Carolina's offensive tackles
One of the biggest differences between the Falcons' two matchups against the Panthers in 2015 was the pressure they put on Cam Newton. In Week 16, as Atlanta ruined Carolina's bid for a perfect record, its pass rush came to life, regularly moving Newton out of the pocket and, eventually, forcing a game-sealing turnover.
The Panthers' offensive line, particularly the offensive tackles, has struggled of late, allowing eight sacks last Sunday against Minnesota — seven of which came from the outside. Losing LT Michael Oher to a concussion makes matters even more difficult for that unit.
Adding to their sack total will be a top priority for the Falcons. And if they can do so, it'll go a long way toward leaving with a victory.
Jones versus Carolina's secondary
Carolina's top two cornerbacks, per the team depth chart, are Bene Benwikere and James Bradberry. While they've made just 16 combined NFL starts, each has played well recently: According to Pro Football Focus, Benwikere and Bradberry have allowed 15 completions on 31 targets for 174 yards, a touchdown and an interception in 2016.
But they've yet to face a threat like Julio Jones.
The superstar wide receiver is due for a monster performance after a one-catch night against New Orleans. And even if he doesn't put up big numbers, Panthers DBs will have no choice but to give him loads of attention, which, as we've we've seen in the last three weeks, can open up big opportunities for his teammates.
"Coordinators are going to try to take me away or they are going to put two guys on me or three guys depending on who we are playing. So, I'm doing my job," Jones said Thursday. "That's all that I can do and we are winning. As long as we are winning football games and they are doing that, I'm happy with it and playing my role."
Kawann Short versus Atlanta's interior O-line
Carolina has some imposing defensive tackles, none more dangerous than Kawann Short. The Pro Bowler had 11 sacks last season — good for eighth in the NFL, and tied for first among DTs. Short has yet to earn a sack in 2016, but he's been creating pressure and remains a constant threat in the passing game. He has been productive on rushing plays, too, making seven stops against the run in three contests.
It will take a collective effort to slow down the Panthers' inside push, and that effort begins with center Alex Mack. The free agent signing was rock solid throughout September — protecting Matt Ryan and opening up holes for the running backs — and can help set the tone for Atlanta's offense.