Each week, Falcons vice president of football communications Reggie Roberts sits down with an expert and talks about the Falcons as well as what's going on in the rest of the league. This week's expert is NFL writer Darin Gantt from the Charlotte Observer, who thinks the Panthers could be primed for a late season push, but doesn't see it coming against the Falcons
Reggie Roberts: Who are the top five teams in the NFL right now and tell us why you like each team?
Darin Gantt: It's a good thing I waited until after Monday Night Football to compile this list, because it might have changed some things. The New England Patriots have just made it impossible to bet against them. The destruction of the Jets was complete and shows the talent, but more importantly, the character of that club. When faced with a big-game situation (and Rex Ryan made sure they knew it was one), there's no one better.
I'd probably go Pittsburgh next, as Ben Roethlisberger has set aside his off-field issues and taken control of that team. There's no doubt he deserves to be among the top cut of MVP candidates, and while James Harrison donates a significant portion of his earnings to charity each month, he and Troy Polamalu have that defense playing at a high level.
Not just saying this to suck up, but I'd slot the Falcons third. Matt Ryan's playing such an efficient game right now, and with the success Atlanta's had at home, it's hard to argue with you guys as the NFC favorite at the moment.
Four and five are probably the Jets and Ravens, and I'd probably toss a coin to pick between them at the moment. They're similar in so many ways. I'd probably lean toward Baltimore based on Joe Flacco's experience edge.
RR: Carolina's opponent this week is the Atlanta Falcons, who currently have the best record in the NFC at 10-2. What are your thoughts on Sunday's matchup in that these two division rivals usually play very close games?
DG: Ordinarily, you'd be willing to go along with the "fierce rivals" narrative, but these two teams are in such different spots at the moment.
John Fox may have one last push up the hill left in him, but it's hard to see it coming this week. With everything Atlanta has on the line at the moment (the aforementioned home-field advantage in the NFC), it's hard to see them overlooking a game they need to check off and move on from. The Panthers have enough talent to keep games close, but their margin of error is so thin that when the first bad thing happens to them, it's hard to recover from.
RR: The Chicago Bears are a very hot team right now. Do you see them making a deep playoff run?
DG: The biggest difference I see in the Bears at the moment is Jay Cutler taking better care of the ball. Only one pick in the last three weeks (and none in the last two) underlines the progress he's made. Wasn't sure Mike Martz was going to be a good fit for him, but the pairing has obviously worked.
You know a Lovie Smith team is going to play good defense, and Julius Peppers has been a spark there. As was the case at Carolina, much of what he adds is not just his own statistical impact, but the pressure he relieves from teammates. Israel Idonije is his new Mike Rucker, the guy on the other side of the line who can make his own plays because so much attention is focused on Peppers. They could make a run, but they'd be much better off if they could make it from their place.
RR: The Steelers went into Baltimore on Sunday night and got the win despite not playing their best game. Do you think people are writing off Mike Tomlin's team?
DG: They better not write off the Steelers. What makes that organization special is their ability to change the names and numbers and still keep the play at a high level. That's what makes this team so impressive over the years. Their rush defense is amazing, and if you can make a team one-dimensional, you're halfway toward winning the game. Roethlisberger's playing a different game now. He simply looks more polished as a passer, and he was already pretty good in that respect.
RR: Give us an update on the Panthers. They are playing better as of late and are a much better team than their record would indicate. What's your take on their season and have they shown some improvement over the past couple of games?
DG: Been a rough year in Charlotte. The entire plan was built around QB Matt Moore playing at an acceptable level, even if not the 90.0-plus QB rating pace he kept while winning four of his last five starts last December. But when Moore struggled early and head coach John Fox made the move to Jimmy Clausen in Week 3, it changed the entire plan. Suddenly, they became a developmental team, being coached by a staff that's not returning in 2011. The whole John Fox element has made it an awkward year, and it's not a fitting send-off for the most successful coach in franchise history. There are parts in place which make it easy to suggest the Panthers could bounce quickly, but the first step has to be getting everyone on the same page, and reconciling the goals of management with the goals of the coaching staff.