FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – Win and you're in: That's the scenario the Falcons face this weekend against the Panthers with a playoff spot still up for grabs.
Despite some of the issues that have plagued the Falcons at times this season, they have, as coach Dan Quinn said Wednesday, "earned the opportunity to control our own destiny." The Panthers won't go down easily, however, as they are still hoping to earn better seeding in the playoffs and could potentially still grab a first-round bye.
With so much on the line in the regular-season finale, let's dive into this week's key matchup.
KEY MATCHUP: Falcons' run defense vs. Panthers' run game
In Week 9, the first meeting between these two teams, the Panthers gained the most rushing yards against the Falcons of any team they've played this season.
Led by Cam Newton, who had 86 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, the Panthers gained a total of 201 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 38 attempts – an average of 5.3 yards per carry. That level of production on the ground allowed Carolina to beat Atlanta in time of possession by over five minutes and control the pace of the game.
Since that performance, the Falcons have showed marked improvement against the run and become a formidable defense, overall. In their last five games, the Falcons have allowed only one team to rush for over 100 yards against them – the Vikings, who gained 105 rushing yards in Week 13.
In the seven weeks since the Panthers gained 201 rushing yards against the Falcons, Atlanta's defense has allowed an average of just 94.6 yards on the ground to opposing offenses.
"Here's what we know we need to get done," Quinn said of this matchup. "This is a good running team. You better make sure your tackling is on point, and that kind of physicality and tacking, and owning our leverage, that's part of the fundamentals, part of what we control. The second piece of that is when the option parts of games come in, let's make sure we can control those. That's part of your details and your assignments, so I would say those two things in particular. At the line of scrimmage tackling, and making sure on our responsibilities in terms of leverage and where we go, let's make sure those are on point."
This season, the Falcons are better equipped to play and win a tough, physical low-scoring game, which is the type of style that often defines the Panthers. Carolina is at its best, offensively, when it can run the ball and control the pace and style of the game. The Falcons' ability or inability to prevent the Panthers from doing that could be the deciding factor in a pivotal Week 17 game.
Five more things to know about Falcons-Panthers 1. Cam Newton looking forward to playing in Mercedes-Benz Stadium
"This is a new dome. I guess it's time to create more lasting memories."
That's what Panthers quarterback said earlier this week when asked about playing in the Falcons' new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, according to Max Henson of the team’s official site. Unfortunately for Newton, there haven't been many pleasant memories in his hometown of Atlanta.
In his time as the team's quarterback, the Panthers are 2-4 on the road against the Falcons. Newton averages 15 completions on 26 attempts for 170 yards, one touchdown and .7 interceptions through the air with eight rushing attempts for 55 yards and .7 touchdowns per game throughout his career in Atlanta. 2. Freeman excelling on third down
The last time the Falcons played the Panthers, they had seven opportunities on offense to pick up just 1 yard for a new set of downs. Atlanta converted in two of those situations. Those third-down problems have been remedied since that showing, and the Falcons are converting a league-high 45.3 percent of their third-down chances this season.
Running back Devonta Freeman has been especially good on third-down carries. According to Pro Football Focus, Freeman has been given the ball 18 times this season on third down, and he's picked up a first down on 11 of those carries. His 61.1 percent success rate is the second-best mark in the NFL among running backs with over 10 carries on third down behind only Kareem Hunt, who has the same number of first down conversions on one less third-down attempt. The NFL average for running backs in this category is 43.3 percent. 3. Panthers have a pair of dominant offensive linemen
While the Kalil brothers, Matt and Ryan, might be the most well-known offensive linemen for the Panthers, they are the unit's best duo this season. Left guard Andrew Norwell and right tackle Daryl Williams are both the top-rated players at their position by Pro Football Focus, earning a "very good" grade of 87.5 and 86.4 from the website, respectively.
Per PFF, Norwell has yet to allow a sack or a hit on Newton this season, while Williams has played every snap for the Panthers in 2017 and has been very solid as both a pass blocker and a run blocker. 4. Falcons defense making a statement
There have been countless discussions about the Falcons offense, but it's the defense that deserves to be talked about. Atlanta is 10th in yards per game, eighth in rushing yards per game, 12th in passing yards per game and tied for 11th in points per game, allowing 20.3 points – the same amount as the Panthers' vaunted unit.
Only one team – Seattle – has scored over 30 points against the Falcons this season, and Atlanta has held its opponents to 20 points or fewer a total of eight times. For comparison, the Falcons allowed six teams to score 30-plus points in 2016 and held only five teams to under 20 points.
The improvement hasn't just occurred as a unit. Pro Football Focus has helped identify that a number of individual defenders are enjoying noteworthy seasons.
Deion Jones is second among all linebackers with eight combined interceptions and pass breakups this season. Keanu Neal leads all safeties with 40 tackles within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. Desmond Trufant has either intercepted or broken up a pass on 27.3 percent of passes thrown his way while he's in press coverage, the best mark in the league. Finally, Takkarist McKinley is the second-most efficient pass-rusher among all rookies, registering pressure on 31 of his 246 pass-rush snaps. 5. Falcons can exact revenge for 2014
Just three seasons ago, the Falcons hosted the Panthers for a winner-take-all matchup in the 2014 season finale. Carolina entered the game with a 6-8-1 record, while the Falcons and Saints each stood at 6-9, with Atlanta holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over New Orleans. The winner of the Week 17 game between the Panthers and Falcons would capture the NFC South title and advance to the postseason.
Unfortunately, the Falcons couldn't muster a strong effort in that game and turned the ball over three times en route to losing against the Panthers 34-3. That game marked the last time the Falcons lost at home against the Panthers, and they have the opportunity to continue that streak and reverse their 2014 fortunes on Sunday afternoon.