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Sporting News Prediction: Panites @ Atlanta


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By Darryl Ledbetter & Darin Gantt

For Sporting News

The Panthers could deliver a severe blow to the Falcons' improbable playoff aspirations. A defeat would be Atlanta's third in the NFC South Division, meaning the best the Falcons could finish would be 3-3.

Entering this game, the Falcons are 1-2 in division play and will face NFC South foes in three of their next four games.

The Falcons are two games behind Carolina, one game behind Tampa Bay (7-3) and one game ahead of New Orleans (5-5).

"We're getting into a stretch where we've got three division games here in the next four weeks," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "Two of the division games are here at home. Those are the most important games."

Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has played six games since facing the Carolina Panthers in Week 4 and is more confident in what he's doing. Ryan had a quarterback passing rating of 71.5 in last week's 24-20 loss to the Broncos. It was his fourth-worst game of the season. He had lower ratings against Philadelphia (68.1), Carolina (60.8) and Tampa Bay (29.6). Ryan threw five of his six interceptions and two of his 11 touchdown passes in those four games, all losses.

Ryan did not have a touchdown pass for the third time this season. He also didn't throw touchdown passes in losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina. In the first game against Carolina, Ryan's receivers dropped six passes.

The Falcons want to hang their hat on the running game. But running back Michael Turner has not rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the past five games. He has 228 carries for 971 yards. Before this season, Turner had 228 carries in four seasons with San Diego for 1,257 yards. Turner has had at least 25 carries in four of the past five games. In the first matchup, the Panthers held Turner to 56 yards on 18 carries.

Panthers Keys For Success

1. Recall how they played the run. The Panthers stumbled over themselves in run defense the past two weeks, and they now must fix it against the league's second-ranked ground attack. While the Panthers shone early against a parade of star rushers (including holding Turner in check in September), they've started leaking against the likes of Justin Fargas and Kevin Smith. Carolina must play a more disciplined game or this could get away from them.

2. Get Steve Smith the ball. Smith's not about to start muttering, but he's caught seven passes for 68 yards the past two weeks, as the Panthers' passing game has gone absent. In fact, with the bye week, it's been a month since they've done anything through the air. Earlier this season, Smith was on a roll, and coaches must figure out how to get the ball in his hands -- not to keep him happy, but to prevent teams from loading up on their running game.

3. Remember what a big game is like. The Panthers are finished with the homecoming opponents, having had to work too hard to dispatch Oakland and Detroit. Now they enter the schedule's toughest part. Four of their last six games on the road. Atlanta never has been a friendly place for them -- they are 4-9 all-time -- but the Panthers have won in their past three visit and have much more on the line now.

Falcons Keys For Success

1. Stop the passing game. In the teams' Sept. 28 game, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme and veteran wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad put on a passing clinic in the Panthers' 24-9 victory. Muhammad caught eight passes for 147 yards. Steve Smith also broke loose for a 56-yard touchdown reception. Delhomme was 20-of-29 passes for 294 yards. Muhammad worked over left cornerback Brent Grimes, who was making his fourth start. Grimes has been replaced by Domonique Foxworth and was inactive last week against Denver.

2. Run defense must improve. Carolina has its power running game in high gear. DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart combined for 250 yards on 29 carries against Detroit last week. The Panthers ran for a team-record 264 yards. Last week the Broncos used a makeshift backfield because of running back injuries -- and they had 124 yards on 25 carries against the Falcons. They had fullback Peyton Hillis playing tailback and used Spencer Larsen, a linebacker, at fullback. Hillis was steady with 44 yards on 10 carries. P.J. Pope came off the bench to add 35 yards on four carries. Tatum Bell, who was managing a cell phone business at the beginning of the week, came on to run seven times for 34 yards. It's never good when four of your top five tacklers are defensive backs.

3. Start fast. Carolina is 8-2 for the first time since 2003, when it went to Super Bowl and faced the New England Patriots. Atlanta has jumped on its opponents. The Falcons have taken early leads and then run the ball. In victories over Detroit (21-0), Kansas City (14-0), Green Bay (10-0), Chicago (6-0), Oakland (14-0) and New Orleans (7-3) the Falcons built on first-quarter leads. Four of their six victories were at home in the Georgia Dome. They lost their first home game last week to Denver.

The Bottom Line

The Panthers are coming off sub-par performances against Oakland and Detroit. They seem to do just enough to beat lower-quality teams. They survived four Delhomme interceptions against Oakland and needed a record-setting rushing performance to squeak by Detroit 31-22. The Falcons know they need this one to keep their magical season alive. Look for the upset.

Scoring prediction: Panthers 17 - Falcons 21

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Wow...really we're favored in this game? Carolina is the class of the NFC South. If they had been owning people recently I'd feel better about this game cause they'd come in over confident, as it is right now, Fox is going to be breathing down their necks. I'm just glad we sputtered against Denver, I think it will force the team to be more intensely focused on Sunday.

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By Darryl Ledbetter & Darin Gantt

For Sporting News

The Panthers could deliver a severe blow to the Falcons' improbable playoff aspirations. A defeat would be Atlanta's third in the NFC South Division, meaning the best the Falcons could finish would be 3-3.

Entering this game, the Falcons are 1-2 in division play and will face NFC South foes in three of their next four games.

The Falcons are two games behind Carolina, one game behind Tampa Bay (7-3) and one game ahead of New Orleans (5-5).

"We're getting into a stretch where we've got three division games here in the next four weeks," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "Two of the division games are here at home. Those are the most important games."

Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has played six games since facing the Carolina Panthers in Week 4 and is more confident in what he's doing. Ryan had a quarterback passing rating of 71.5 in last week's 24-20 loss to the Broncos. It was his fourth-worst game of the season. He had lower ratings against Philadelphia (68.1), Carolina (60.8) and Tampa Bay (29.6). Ryan threw five of his six interceptions and two of his 11 touchdown passes in those four games, all losses.

Ryan did not have a touchdown pass for the third time this season. He also didn't throw touchdown passes in losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina. In the first game against Carolina, Ryan's receivers dropped six passes.

The Falcons want to hang their hat on the running game. But running back Michael Turner has not rushed for more than 100 yards in four of the past five games. He has 228 carries for 971 yards. Before this season, Turner had 228 carries in four seasons with San Diego for 1,257 yards. Turner has had at least 25 carries in four of the past five games. In the first matchup, the Panthers held Turner to 56 yards on 18 carries.

Panthers Keys For Success

1. Recall how they played the run. The Panthers stumbled over themselves in run defense the past two weeks, and they now must fix it against the league's second-ranked ground attack. While the Panthers shone early against a parade of star rushers (including holding Turner in check in September), they've started leaking against the likes of Justin Fargas and Kevin Smith. Carolina must play a more disciplined game or this could get away from them.

2. Get Steve Smith the ball. Smith's not about to start muttering, but he's caught seven passes for 68 yards the past two weeks, as the Panthers' passing game has gone absent. In fact, with the bye week, it's been a month since they've done anything through the air. Earlier this season, Smith was on a roll, and coaches must figure out how to get the ball in his hands -- not to keep him happy, but to prevent teams from loading up on their running game.

3. Remember what a big game is like. The Panthers are finished with the homecoming opponents, having had to work too hard to dispatch Oakland and Detroit. Now they enter the schedule's toughest part. Four of their last six games on the road. Atlanta never has been a friendly place for them -- they are 4-9 all-time -- but the Panthers have won in their past three visit and have much more on the line now.

Falcons Keys For Success

1. Stop the passing game. In the teams' Sept. 28 game, Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme and veteran wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad put on a passing clinic in the Panthers' 24-9 victory. Muhammad caught eight passes for 147 yards. Steve Smith also broke loose for a 56-yard touchdown reception. Delhomme was 20-of-29 passes for 294 yards. Muhammad worked over left cornerback Brent Grimes, who was making his fourth start. Grimes has been replaced by Domonique Foxworth and was inactive last week against Denver.

2. Run defense must improve. Carolina has its power running game in high gear. DeAngelo Williams and rookie Jonathan Stewart combined for 250 yards on 29 carries against Detroit last week. The Panthers ran for a team-record 264 yards. Last week the Broncos used a makeshift backfield because of running back injuries -- and they had 124 yards on 25 carries against the Falcons. They had fullback Peyton Hillis playing tailback and used Spencer Larsen, a linebacker, at fullback. Hillis was steady with 44 yards on 10 carries. P.J. Pope came off the bench to add 35 yards on four carries. Tatum Bell, who was managing a cell phone business at the beginning of the week, came on to run seven times for 34 yards. It's never good when four of your top five tacklers are defensive backs.

3. Start fast. Carolina is 8-2 for the first time since 2003, when it went to Super Bowl and faced the New England Patriots. Atlanta has jumped on its opponents. The Falcons have taken early leads and then run the ball. In victories over Detroit (21-0), Kansas City (14-0), Green Bay (10-0), Chicago (6-0), Oakland (14-0) and New Orleans (7-3) the Falcons built on first-quarter leads. Four of their six victories were at home in the Georgia Dome. They lost their first home game last week to Denver.

The Bottom Line

The Panthers are coming off sub-par performances against Oakland and Detroit. They seem to do just enough to beat lower-quality teams. They survived four Delhomme interceptions against Oakland and needed a record-setting rushing performance to squeak by Detroit 31-22. The Falcons know they need this one to keep their magical season alive. Look for the upset.

Scoring prediction: Panthers 17 - Falcons 21

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Wasn't it the sporting news that thought we would win only one game all year?

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