FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Division play begins this weekend for the Falcons (4-3), who are back on the road for their first matchup with the Carolina Panthers.
"We've talked from the very beginning what we think [about] how strong this division is and how battle-tested it makes the teams coming out of it months from now," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said on Monday. "We're jacked to begin the process with our guys."
Sunday's game against the Panthers (5-3) marks the beginning of a defining stretch for the Falcons, which includes games against the Cowboys, Seahawks and Vikings as well as all six NFC South contests.
Let's dive into this week's key matchup.
KEY MATCHUP: Falcons' offensive line vs. Panthers' front seven
The strength of Carolina's defense lies in its front seven, which is among the very best in the NFL. The Panthers have four Pro Bowlers in their primary front-seven rotation, and the unit has a combined 16 Pro Bowl appearances between them.
Luke Kuechly once again leads the way for Carolina's defense as one of the league's top middle linebackers. He has 54 tackles, three passes defended, two tackles for a loss, two hits on the quarterback, two interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, despite missing one game due to injury.
As a unit, the Panthers' defense is surrendering the second-fewest yards per game to opponents, allowing 264 yards on average, and the fifth-fewest points per game at 17.8. The front seven is adept against the run, giving up 81.6 rushing yards per game, the fifth-best mark in the league, and they have the second-best sack rate, bringing down the quarterback on 11.07 percent of drop backs.
Led by center Alex Mack, the Falcons' offensive line has been solid for much of the year. Atlanta is fourth in the league with 4.79 rushing yards per play and has allowed a sack just 5.17 percent of the time Matt Ryan has dropped back, the ninth-best mark.
Quinn and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian want to be able to run the ball, which opens up the rest of the Falcons' offense. For them to do that, Atlanta's offensive line will have to set the tone against one of the league's best defenses.
Five more things to know about Falcons-Panthers 1. Latest start to division play in franchise history
Since their inception in 1966, the Falcons have never played their first division game as late in the season as they will this year. The current divisional format was adopted by the NFL in 1970, at which time Atlanta was part of the NFC West with New Orleans, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The NFC South was created prior to the 2002 season. In addition to moving New Orleans and Atlanta over from the West, Tampa Bay and Carolina were added to form the four-member division. Prior to this season, the latest the Falcons had division play was in 2005, when they played the Saints on Oct. 16. 2. Panthers know how to control the clock
Quinn has spoken often in recent weeks about the importance of getting more possessions on offense and sustaining drives when they do. Against the Panthers, that may be even more important.
Carolina is currently second in time of possession, averaging nearly 34 minutes with the ball per game. Strong play on third down has helped the Panthers continue drives on offense. They are converting on third down 44.83 percent of the time, which is fourth-best among NFL teams. For reference, the Falcons average 29 minutes with the ball, tied for 23rd, and convert 41.03 percent of their third downs, 11th-best in the league. 3. Turnover margin heavily favored Atlanta against division foes in 2016
Defensively, the Falcons have continued to make strides. One area where Quinn would like to see greater improvement is in forcing turnovers, something Atlanta did well last season.
In their six division games in 2016, the Falcons forced 10 turnovers on defense while giving the ball away just two times on offense, equating to a plus-8 turnover margin. So far this year, Atlanta has four takeaways on defense but has turned the ball over nine times on offense, a minus-5 turnover margin. 4. Julius Peppers among the best sack artists in NFL history
After a couple of detours in Chicago and Green Bay, Julius Peppers is right back where he began his NFL career 15 years ago. Incredibly, Peppers doesn't look significantly less spry for Carolina than when he was drafted by the Panthers in 2002.
The veteran already has a team-leading 7.5 sacks so far this season, and he continues to rise past some of the legendary pass rushers in NFL history. Peppers is truly in rarified air.
5. Falcons maintain a lead all-time against the Panthers
Although this rivalry has been fairly even over the last decade between Atlanta and Carolina, the Falcons hold a sizable lead against the Panthers in the all-time series record.
The Falcons are 27-17 against the Panthers since the two teams first met on Sept. 3, 1995, which resulted in a 23-20 overtime victory for Atlanta. They currently hold a three-game win streak in the rivalry and the Falcons have outscored their division rivals 81-49 the past two games. Prior to that, however, it was a mismatch in Carolina's favor as the Panthers two straight by a combined score of 72-3.