The Atlanta Falcons host the Carolina Panthers in what boils down to the NFC South title game in Week 17, with the winner taking the division crown and earning a spot in the playoffs. The Falcons and Panthers have met 39 times, with Atlanta holding a 24-15 advantage in the all-time series, including a 19-17 win at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte in Week 11.
Top Matchup: Falcons CB Desmond Trufant vs. Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin
Trufant and Benjamin square off for the second time this season after an epic matchup during Atlanta's 19-17 win in Week 11. Trufant ended the first game against Benjamin with two pass breakups and one interception, while Benjamin finished the game with nine receptions for 109 yards and a 22-yard touchdown reception in defeat.
"He's a very big target," Trufant said of Benjamin. "He makes big plays when the team needs him. I'm just going to be aggressive, attack and be physical with him and just be confident like any other week. He has improved every week, and I have too, so it's going to be a battle. It's going to be a great matchup."
Under the Radar Player to Watch: Kemal Ishmael
Falcons head coach Mike Smith is confident in Ishmael, who will be asked to step in again for injured safety William Moore, who was placed on injured reserve (shoulder), earlier this week. Ishmael is used to the starting role and has continued to improve his game throughout the season. The team's leader in interceptions (4), Ishmael is ready to face Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who returns for his second game since suffering a back injury in a car accident.
"He's throwing the ball really well," Ishmael said. "He's the same old Cam. He's back to being that Superman guy. We have to get the ball out of his hands real quick and contain him when he runs."
On the Radar Player to Watch: Falcons QB Matt Ryan
All eyes will be on Ryan in the team's biggest game of the year. Ryan is known for being cool, calm and collected in clutch situations and expects to be the same in Week 17, giving his team the best opportunity to win the NFC South.
"This is why you worked so hard during the offseason and during training camp is to have opportunities like this late in the year, where everything is on the line," Ryan said. "That's fun. I think guys are going to enjoy the moment. We're going to prepare as best as we can all week, then go cut it loose and play the way that we're capable of on Sunday."
Number of the Game: 96.6**
After surrendering an average of 128 rushing yards per game in the first eight weeks of the season, Atlanta's defense has allowed just 96.6 rushing yards per game over the last seven weeks. If Mike Nolan's crew can continue its run-stopping efforts in Week 17 against the likes of Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, who has logged 760 rushing yards in 2014, along with three rushing touchdowns, the NFC South title could be well within reach.
Three Keys to Victory:
1. Special Teams Weems: Not talked about nearly enough is the role special teams plays in each and every game, including must-win contests like Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome.
"Special teams are really critical," Falcons wide receiver/special teams captain Eric Weems said. "It's part of the game. It can make or break a game. We just have to keep our head in the game. We gave up a big one last week (99-yard return), but we bounced back from it. We just have to keep working and stay focused."
2. Clash of Top Tacklers:Sunday's matchup includes a pair of the league's top tacklers. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly leads the NFL with 145 tackles, just nine more than Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow (136). While tackling is always paramount in every game, so is the ability of managing the energy and emotions of the much-at-stake contest.
"It's a big game, but there are parameters that you have to act within," Worrilow said. "At the same time, you have to be out there flying around and playing with a lot of emotion, that's also a very big part of it. The whole week is about excitement, and we can't wait to get out there."
3. Falcons Fans Factor: Falcons fans have a huge opportunity to play a vital role in Sunday's game at the Georgia Dome, and Matt Ryan made that very clear this week during his media press conference.
"My Christmas wish is that everybody's there on Sunday, loud when our defense is on the field and really quiet when the offense is on the field," Ryan said. Mike Smith echoed the same thoughts, stressing the importance of making communication for the Carolina offense as difficult as possible, saying, "We need to have the crowd cranked up as loud as we possibly can."
ICYMI: Here's a look at the latest Atlanta Falcons injury report, entering Sunday's game.