Five things to watch in Falcons rematch with Carolina Panthers

Carolina rushed for 203 yards in the divisional opponents' last meeting, can the Falcons flip the script? 

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Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith during team practice at Atlanta Falcons Headquarters in Flowery Branch, Georgia, on Wednesday, December 8, 2021. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Of all the times for the Falcons to meet Carolina on the gridiron again, now could arguably be considered a pretty solid time for a rematch. The Falcons will face a slightly different Panthers team than they did in Week 8.

Carolina has parted ways with their offensive coordinator, Joe Brady, this week. They have a new quarterback. The Falcons faced Sam Darnold a five weeks ago, now they'll see Cam Newton.

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Obviously, Carolina's entire game plan is not going to completely alter because of these changes, but they're big enough changes to think that the Falcons are meeting Carolina at the right time.

This is a big game for the divisional opponents. Carolina is looking for a pick-me-up from a tough week. Atlanta is looking to stay in the playoff conversation. With all of this in mind, let's break down what you should take note of come kickoff on Sunday.

1. Rookies' health status

Both Richie Grant and Ade Ogundeji left the Falcons last game against Tampa Bay with ankle injuries. The two rookies did not participate in Wednesday's practice, but were upgraded to limited on Thursday and Friday.

Grant and Ogundeji are listed as questionable for Sunday's game. The first-year defenders have come to mean a lot to this Falcons defensive rotation. Grant has seen his playing time in rotation increase significantly as the year has gone on. Meanwhile, Ogundeji has started the Falcons' last seven games. Their updated status will be something to monitor once the Falcons released their inactives list prior to Sunday's game.

2. Hayden Hurst's return

Another's status to keep in mind throughout the weekend is Hurst. The tight end has missed the last three games on injured reserve with an ankle injury, but was designated to return to practice earlier this week.

By coming back to practice, Hurst entered into a 21-day window in which he can be activated to the active roster. For majority of the Falcons players designated to return after being placed on IR, Atlanta has usually activated them on the Saturday afternoon before a Sunday game. If Hurst is activated, that decision could come soon based on precedent.

Hurst's potential return could mean a lot for a Falcons offense that has struggled at times to finish drives. Giving Matt Ryan another receiving threat will only stretch a defense, potentially opening more windows for the likes of Russell Gage and Kyle Pitts. If Hurst returns, this would be good news for the Falcons.

3. Establishing the run

Arthur Smith said the Falcons run game has looked more like what he envisioned it would over the course of the last two games. The Falcons have put together a back-to-back, 100-plus rushing yard performances throughout the previous two weeks. And they did so against the (at the time) No. 3 and No. 1 run defenses in the league in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.

This is a stark contrast to many games this season in which the Falcons have seen the run game struggle to be established.

"The first few weeks - or however many weeks - during the season, the run game was not there, but honestly it's been there these last two weeks," Cordarrelle Patterson said, "and we just gotta continue to push every day just to show the coaches that we can run the ball."

The challenge for this rushing attack to continue to trend in the right direction goes through Carolina now.

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4. Stopping the run

As establishing the run is for the offense, stopping the run is just as important for the defense. The last time these two divisional opponents met in Atlanta, Carolina rushed for over 200 yards. A major point of "disappointment" for defensive coordinator Dean Pees wasn't the Falcons defense against designed run plays. It was that Darnold leaked out of the pocket for 66 yards on eight carries.

Facing a physical runner in Newton this Sunday will be quite the test to see if the Falcons can stop that from happening again. And Pees is fully expecting Carolina to attack via the run. It's up to the Falcons defense to show things have changed since their last matchup with the Panthers.

"If you're having trouble with something," Pees said, "they're going to find out if you've fixed it."

5. A must-win game to stay in the conversation

The Falcons do not necessarily control their own destiny when it comes to a potential playoff run, but they definitely do play a role in their own success. They have to win games. And the first game on the docket is Carolina. The Falcons have five games left, two against divisional opponents in the Panthers and Saints. If the Falcons can go 3-2 throughout the next five weeks, they will put themselves in position to at least be in the playoff conversation.

There is a lot that needs to happen elsewhere, too, for the Falcons to be a part of that conversation. But winning helps. It - of course - helps. And the Falcons need a win this Sunday.

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