FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Both the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons are coming into this Week 8 divisional matchup on Sunday with something to prove.
For the Falcons, they're out to prove they're better than what they showed a week ago against the Cincinnati Bengals. For Carolina, they're looking to do the opposite: They're wanting to prove they are the team that beat Tampa Bay 21-3 on Sunday.
Carolina has undergone some series turmoil over the last month of the season. The Panthers are just trying to get back on some type of track. Meanwhile, Atlanta is looking for consistency.
A week ago, perhaps the narrative around this game is not what it is now. Before Atlanta lost to Cincinnati and before Carolina beat the Bucs, perhaps both teams enter into this game feeling quite different. However, it's because of what's transpired in the last week that this game between two division opponents is a big deal in the grand scheme of the NFC South division.
With all of that being said, let's dive into this week's installment of your "Five things to watch" as the Falcons host the Panthers on Sunday.
1. Cornerback carousel
Casey Hayward is on injured reserve, and A.J. Terrell has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. The Falcons were without their starting cornerback duo against the Bengals and Joe Burrow last week.
And with Ja'Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins playing opposite them a week ago, the Falcons secondary was just outmatched by the Bengals' explosive offense.
Playing in place of Hayward and Terrell last week was Darren Hall and Cornell Armstrong, who was elevated from the practice squad prior to the Falcons loss in Cincinnati. If Armstrong is again elevated this Saturday, the chances of him starting opposite Hall are strong with Dee Alford being given the game designation of questionable. He, too, has a hamstring injury that has lingered, but he's been limited throughout the practice week this week.
Granted the Panthers are not the Bengals, and P.J. Walker is not Joe Burrow, the Falcons secondary is looking for redemption regardless of opponent. And that includes the safeties, too...
2. Safety switch up
Like the cornerback position, new starters will take over at safety, too, with Jaylinn Hawkins in concussion protocol. Arthur Smith ruled Hawkins out early in the week, and it's very likely Dean Marlowe will play alongside Richie Grant at the position with Isaiah Oliver acting as the defense's primary nickel.
In that case, Erik Harris and Mike Ford would be the Falcons role players and depth pieces of the secondary.
Week 8 is another week in which this Falcons defensive depth will be tested. How different that looks after a week of prep knowing it will be? That's the question for the secondary as a whole without Hayward, Terrell and Hawkins.
3. Putting pressure on P.J. Walker, stopping the run
The Carolina run game has taken quite the hit in recent weeks. The Panthers have traded Christian McCaffrey to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Chuba Hubbard has officially been ruled out of Sunday's game in Atlanta.
This leaves D'Onta Foreman as the Panthers' primary running back.
The Panthers ran the ball well against the Bucs last week with a 173-rushing yard day. That's a season high for Carolina. It was a day that saw Foreman surpass the 100-yards rushing mark with Hubbard leaving the game with the ankle injury that will sideline him on Sunday. He had 118 yards on 16 carries, averaging a whopping 7.3 yards a carry.
Earlier in the week, Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks said this type of rushing performance is something he hopes this team can build on.
"That's the mindset I wanted to create upfront, just blue-collar, hardworking, pushing the pile; I thought we did that," Wilks said via a report from Panthers reporter Augusta Stone this week. "What we did in that (Tampa Bay) game is going to help us win games down the road."
Snuffing out a new flame of rushing potential with the Panthers will be quite important for the Falcons on Sunday.
However, of even more importance, will be an obvious and deliberate transformation in passing situations. It's not enough to simply stop the run, we've seen what offenses can do to this defense via the pass, and one could argue it's been a theme in all of the Falcons losses this season.
Walker is coming off a solid performance, too, having connected on 16 of his 22 passes on Sunday for 177 yards and two touchdowns. The Falcons have to find ways to put pressure on him, and a running back core that's missing Hubbard.
4. Falcons in need of long, productive drives
Atlanta's offense left something to be desired against the Bengals a week ago. Though they did rush for over 100 yards last Sunday, it wasn't enough against a fire-power Cincinnati offense that scored more often than not when it had the ball.
The Falcons are at their best when they're stringing long, six- or seven- or even eight-minute drives together. If they end in touchdowns? Even better. It's of the upmost importance that the Falcons get back to this formula of sustained offensive production after a second half in Cincinnati that saw Atlanta only accumulate 18 total plays.
The Falcons have to be more productive offensively in whatever way that production comes.
5. The NFC South standings
Let's get one thing straight here: It's only Week 8. No one is handing out trophies to the team who sits atop their division in Week 8.
Right now, though, that team is Atlanta.
What's interesting is that the Falcons are the only team in said division without a divisional win. And yet, they find themselves at the top.
They've lost to the Saints and Bucs, yes, but they're still 3-4 on the year, a record highlighted with wins over the Seahawks and 49ers.
The Falcons have a chance to earn their first divisional win of 2022 on Sunday, remaining at the top of the division for another week longer. The Panthers, on the other hand, are looking for their second straight divisional win. It should make for a competitive Sunday between the two.
"You've got to create somewhat of a lead in our division, you want to create separation," Marcus Mariota said on Wednesday. "This is where it starts."
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Carolina Panthers.