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Five things to watch when Falcons make a Week 15 trip up to Carolina 

Can the Falcons assert dominance in this must-win matchup? 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Thinking back to the first week of the 2023 season, expectations and feelings around the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers were oh so different from where the organizations find themselves now in Week 15.

In Week 1, there was a certain sense of hope that had yet to fizzle out. Carolina was ready to debut their No. 1 overall draft pick, Bryce Young. They had new coach Frank Reich at the helm of the team. Panthers defensive end Brian Burns chose to play in that Week 1 game amidst contract disputes. He was as good as advertised, with seven tackles and two sacks in that game.

In Week 1, the Falcons were settling into their own type of hope.

With Bijan Robinson, Tyler Allgeier, Drake London and Kyle Pitts all on the field at one time, Atlanta was expected to have one of the most fun and explosive offenses in the league. The Falcons were actively trying to figure out what they had with Desmond Ridder, giving him the title of QB1 to find out. Then, there was the defense, a unit that had resources and money (lots of it) pumped into its veins. Jessie Bates III proved his worth in that Week 1 game, forcing three turnovers and earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week status. The Falcons won, starting the season at 1-0. And even in the loss, there seemed to be hope still springing up in Carolina, too.

Now, 15 weeks later, that hope turned to ashes in Carolina while in Atlanta the team is left hoping for a spark to light them to the end of the season.

At the end of November, the Panthers fired Reich. They're 1-12 entering Week 15, and a recent article on SB Nation claims that, "The Panthers are so bad tickets are being sold for 45 cents."

Meanwhile, the Falcons are not close to this dire of a situation, but they're not where they want to be. At 6-7, they're not where they thought they'd be at this point in the season, either, but they can still see a path to the postseason. The Falcons are in a three-way tie with the Buccaneers and Saints for first-place standings in the NFC South. Things are not over for the Falcons if they string wins together in the final four weeks of the season. That starts in Carolina this Sunday. So, let's discuss the matchup that is a must-win for Atlanta.


1. Where the offensive line stands

At one point in the Falcons loss to the Bucs last Sunday, Matthew Bergeron was the only starting offensive lineman in the game for Atlanta. Kaleb McGary and Drew Dalman were ruled out of Sunday's game with injuries, while Jake Matthews suffered a knee injury in-game and didn't play at all in the second half. Chris Lindstrom missed a series before halftime with an ankle injury but returned to action after the halftime break.

Last Sunday saw players like Storm Norton, Ryan Neuzil, Tyler Vrabel and Kyle Hinton take reps at offensive line. So, what will this Sunday look like? The jury is still out and it could be a number of combinations taking the field in Carolina this weekend.

The good news is that the starters have all practiced to some degree throughout Week 15's prep. Furthermore, head coach Arthur Smith announced Friday that only McGary (knee) has been ruled out of Sunday's game. Lindstrom (ankle) and Matthews (knee) and Dalman (ankle) were listed as questionable.

Meaning, as Jim Carey once said in the 1994 classic Dumb and Dumber: So, you're telling me there's a chance.

*2. Running through the murk *

Two weeks removed from the Falcons Week 13 win over the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium, they've got another slog ahead of them in Charlotte this weekend. The forecast for Sunday isn't dissimilar to what it was the last time the Falcons faced the Panthers on the road. We're talking a high of 53 degrees with a 95% chance of rain. So, yeah: Gross conditions.

The expectations should be that both teams rely on the run this Sunday as they try to establish offensive momentum.

Despite their most recent loss, the Falcons defense is still one of the best teams in the league when stopping the run. Opponents average less than four yards per carry against the Falcons, which lands them in the top-10 in that category. They've also only given up five rushing touchdowns all year, which puts them second in the league behind the Ravens with four.

Meanwhile, the Falcons offense has shown the run remains a staple of positivity for the unit in 2023. The Falcons have rushed for more than 150 yards in four games this season. They've only lost one of those games. More than that, the Falcons average 32 run plays per game. When they run the ball 32 times or more in a game, they've won five of six.

Sunday has the makings of a run-first game for both teams. The team that dominates at the line of scrimmage has a good chance to take home the win.

XXXXX during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Thursday, December 14, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

*3. Turnover contagion *

They say turnovers are contagious. For this Falcons defense, though, Jessie Bates III has been a lone producer.

After a three-turnover day to start the 2023 season (against Carolina no less), Bates hasn't stopped. He has accumulated five interceptions (one he returned 95 yards for a touchdown against the Saints) and three forced fumbles. As far as turnovers go, only Nate Landman has forced as many as Bates, but he only has one interception and two forced fumbles.

Then, there's Bates production as a tackler. As this week's Nerdy Birds explained: Bates surpassed the 100-tackles mark last Sunday, making him the first Falcon and the third player in the NFL to record at least 100 tackles, five interceptions and three forced fumbles in a season since at least 2000. He's been electric for Atlanta in 2023. However, for the Falcons to make even bigger waves as a defense, he can't do it all and it would be nice to see some other members of this secondary get their hands on a ball or two.

Another Nerdy Birds note that could mean something about this idea has to do with A.J. Terrell. Since Week 10, Matt Haley and John Deighton pointed out, 70% of A.J. Terrell's targets have been classified as tight windows, meaning Terrell was less than one yard away from the targeted receiver when a pass arrived. And as we all know, the closer you are to the ball (or in this case the receiver whom the ball is targeted to go to), the easier it is to make a play on it.

4. Getting key defensive playmakers back

UPDATE (Dec. 16, 4 p.m.): David Onyemata was ruled out of Sunday's game, well after this article was published.

Like the Falcons offensive line last Sunday, the defensive line was hit with an injury punch, too.

Already without Grady Jarrett for the year, the Falcons were dealt another blow as an ankle injury kept David Onyemata out of the lineup. In his place stepped in recent acquisition Kentavius Street, who had been playing well in relief. However, a pectoral injury in the third quarter had the Falcons going even deeper into the reserve bank.

With interior linemen like Albert Huggins and Ta'Quon Graham having to take the bulk of the interior reps and the Falcons being limited in their usually dense defensive line rotation, the Bucs were able to take advantage of the extended defensive reps. For the Bucs, 72 of their 148 total rushing yards came in the final quarter. Falcons defenders didn't like that. So, with the game likely going back to the run this Sunday and Onyemata making his return to the interior, perhaps it all points to the defensive line's run-stopping prowess strengthening against Carolina. That should be the hope.

*5. Asserting dominance *

Make no mistake about it: The Falcons most recent loss to the Bucs last Sunday stung.

Going into that game, Atlanta had the chance to further it's chances of making it to the postseason with a win. They were in sole possession of first place in the NFC South, where they would have remained with a win over Tampa Bay. With a win, they would have stayed undefeated in the division, something that would have gone a long way in perspective when discussing postseason opportunities.

Instead, they were dealt a loss.

And instead of sole position atop the division, they're in a three-way tie for first place with the Bucs and Saints. Tampa Bay holds the tie-breaker if it came to that.

So, where does that leave the Falcons? In need of wins. Preferable decisive wins, which is exactly what they should strive for in Charlotte this weekend.

One could argue one of the Falcons only decisive wins of the 2023 season came in Week 1 vs. the Panthers. They need another one, and it needs to be more of a laying of the hammer than what even the Week 1 win was. And what's a decisive win, you may be asking? To me, it's a game where the victor leaves no doubt from start to finish that they're winning that game. There are no fourth-quarter comebacks or last-second field goals. It's taking the lead, extending the lead and holding onto the lead through four quarters of work. That's what the Falcons need in Week 15.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Carolina Panthers, presented by Fast Twitch.

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