Carolina Panthers (1-4) at Atlanta Falcons (2-3) Preview:

Almost. Almost, but not quite.

One or two plays is all it takes in the NFL. A couple of plays here and there and a young team could be 4-1 rather than 1-4. But that’s the difference between the good teams in this league and the rebuilding ones that are still developing their team.

Not quite good enough, not quite ripe enough is how you can describe the Carolina Panthers season to date. A young team, hanging in games but not quite there yet. Not experienced enough to close out those close games, to finish drives and to put teams away.

And while they’re 1-4, there’s hope. Little consolation to the Panthers players and fans, but after going 2-14 last season with a QB carousel and numerous big questions looming over this team, the way Cam Newton and new head coach Ron Rivera have breathed life back into the team and the city of Charlotte, is something that must not be taken lightly.

When Ron Rivera was first hired and he put together his staff, I was excited. My thoughts were, it would take a couple of off-season’s to get this team turned around, from a John Fox team to a Rivera team. Players have to shake what they know and inhale a whole new system, a new philosophy and way of playing football. The X’s & O’s are basically the same, but it’s the way the team carries itself, the mindset, along with the roster – getting that to Rivera’s liking that would take it’s time.

No need to look any further than my good friend, the Detroit Lions. Look at where they’ve come from. A couple of seasons under Jim Schwartz and some solid offseasons of free agency and drafting and they’re sitting at 5 & freakin’ 0. The Motown is dancin’ in the streets and for good reason. That gives me hope, that a team that was once 0-16 or a team that was 2-14 can turn it around and get back to being a great, consistently good football team that fans will want to come and see, each and every Sunday. It just takes time. The team needs to gel, become experienced so in the redzone, they can put up 6 instead of 3. In the 4th quarter, they can comeback from 14 down to win by a TD. Less penalties, less coaching errors.. better play all around. Sharper, smoother; a well oiled machine.

The Panthers aren’t there yet. They’ve shown signs of a young team that should be capable in the future. For the most part, they’ve done as well as can be expected with a rookie head coach, quarterback and a defense full of band-aid players. They’ve done well to revitalize veteran All-Pro wide receiver Steve Smith, forgotten for a couple of seasons, now once again relevant as one of the best WRs in the game. He was always good, he just needed help getting the ball delivered. The Panthers have done well to produce 2 solid DE’s who through 5 games, have 9 sacks combined. It’s like Peppers and Rucker on the edge again (which I love.. all starts in the trenches.) The middle of the line has been the problem, with 2 rookies starting and other serviceable guys rotating in there. The linebackers and secondary have been hit hard by injury and have held their own against top passing offenses like Green Bay & New Orleans, despite giving up chunks of yards. They’ve done well to stay in games, but once again.. not good enough. And don’t even get me started on special teams play this season. However, like all areas as the season progresses.. improvement is showing.

This week the Panthers take their fantasy football road show into rival Georgia, down the I-85. The Panthers hope to finally put a complete game together of offense, coaching, defense and special teams against a struggling 2-3 Atlanta Falcons team.

This game should be a fantastic game. 2 dangerous teams, the Falcons coming off a home loss against the Packers and the Panthers coming off another close loss against another division rival in the Saints. Realistically, the game could go either way. The arm wrestle could come down to a field goal, rather than a shootout. Both offenses may struggle, or both defenses may fail. Always an entertaining game, let’s break it down a little more closely:

The quarterback situation for both teams is intriguing. Matty “Ice” Ryan’s ice has melted into a pool of murky, smelly (typical for the area) watery goo this season. With the tag of being overrated around the league, Ryan has struggled immensely this season, already throwing 6 interceptions (tied for 4th in the NFL with Carolina’s Newton), throwing 196 times (3rd in the NFL behind Drew Brees & Tom Brady) and only completing only 61.2% of his throws. With a QB rating of 79.9, he’s been sacked 14 times (tied for 6th, along with Eli Manning & Phil Rivers) and only has 13 plays of over 20+ yards – most to receiver Roddy White, who is tied for 2rd in the NFL in receptions with 32. Overall, not exactly a balanced offense, with star RB Michael Turner only getting the call on 84 carries, for an average of 4.3ypc. The Falcons have put 104 (20.8, ranked 19th) points on the board against opponents this season, but have allowed 130 points (26ppg, ranked 24th.)  No doubt, the Falcons could’ve won a few more games had the offense clicked, had there not been some key injuries and had Roddy White’s hands not been made of stone. (See, game vs. Bucs, week 3.)

On the injury front, the Falcons will be missing veteran lineman Todd McClure and rookie WR Julio Jones who is due to miss with a jamstring injury. (Not a typo, will let you think about that one.) They’ll also be missing star defensive end John Abraham, who’s out with a knee injury and no doubt would have been a thorn for the rookie Cam Newton.

But so far, everything Newton has faced, every defense he has seen (some good ones, including Capers’ Packers D, Gregg Williams dirty Saints D & Del Rio’s D in Jacksonville) the rookie has taken in stride and won the battle numerous times, even if the war itself wasn’t won in the end. An impressive start and unheard of, the Panthers QB who is gaining a cult-like following not only in Carolina but all over the US, is playing well above his age and expectations. What’s even more impressive is despite his multiple 300 & 400 yard games, he just wants to play football & win.

This week, he’ll face a Falcon D that ranks 24th in yards allowed per game, a passing D that is allowing 294.2 yards passing per game (ranked 28th) and a rushing D that has given up an average of 89.2 yards per game on the ground (6th in the NFL). The key for the rookie will be to help establish the run, get the D playing the run so later in the game, the pass is opened up with the safeties playing closer to the line of scrimmage, because of the run.

No doubt Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski will want a balanced offense as we’ve seen (except for the first few games, in which the Panthers went pass-happy) to keep the Falcons guessing. The Panthers need to control the time of possession and convert on 3rd down – something they’ve been improving upon, but need to get better in. Drew Brees and the Saints last week, showed the Panthers first hand last week how you do it on 3rd down. Keep your D rested, tire the other D out and keep a guy like Matt Ryan and Michael Turner, cold on the bench. Basic football principals that just need to be executed.

Coming into this game, the Panthers offense has done a complete 180 degree turn, ranking 5th in the NFL with an average of 428.2 total offense per game, scoring 23.2 point a game, good for 15th in the NFL. Throwing to Smith, early and often while still establishing the running game is key for Carolina. Good things happen when you give your key players the touches and feeding Williams, Stewart, Smith & TE Greg Olsen early and often, should pay dividends for the Panthers, if their D can keep up with their offense.

Key matchups for Carolina in this game:

QB Cam Newton vs. Falcons defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder

Going into this week 6 matchup, both QB’s have similar stats. Newton has shown great poise in the pocket as well as being able to make plays with his feet when he’s needed to. He’s passed for 1,610 yards so far – best for 4th in the NFL, on 194 attempts (completion percentage of 58.2) with a QB rating of 84.3 (ranking 15th in the league). Although he only has 7 TDs to go with his 6 interceptions, he’s also scored 5 TDs with his feet already. That will be a factor for the Falcons defense, and what kind of looks they’ll show. Do they keep a spy on him ala what the Panthers did in ’05 vs. Michael Vick, do they commit to the pass knowing they’re capable of stopping the run or do they force him to beat their D with his arm? If I were Newton, I’d be liking the challenge of trying to beat this D with his arm. Bring it on, throw it over CB Dunta Robinsons way and move the chains. Can Newton eclipse the 400 yard mark yet again? Although that would be awesome, if he has to throw it 35 times a game, that usually means the running game isn’t working which makes the offense one dimensional in which case, the Falcons suddenly have the advantage of knowing.

RB DeAngelo Williams/Jonathon Stewart vs. LB Curtis Lofton 

Only recently have the Panthers been able to get their running game on the move. Last week, DeAngelo Williams broke the century mark for the first time this season and scored on a 69 yard QB option play. The Panthers finally looked balanced, driving up and down the field in trying to keep up with Brees and the Saints. If the Panthers can have continued success on the ground and get chunks of yards on 1st and 2nd down, it’ll ease the load on rookie QB Newton and keep the Falcons off the field, so long as they can convert on 3rd down. And while most of the attention has been on Williams this week, Stewart is making his presence felt in other parts of the offense, having already had a 100 yard game earlier in the year; however, that 100 yard game was receiving yards. With Stewart the go-to back on passing downs in both pass-catching and blocking, the Panthers have a dual threat, not only on the ground but also in the passing game. Both backs can be elusive in the screen game and out in the flats, making life a little more difficult for the Falcons linebacking duo of Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon. Both LBs are having solid years and lead a Falcons D stout against the run. This week will be another big test, as the Panthers are just finding their feet in the running game and could potentially explode if not contained early on.

WR Steve Smith vs. CB Dunta Robinson

Other than Calvin Johnson & Wes Welker, no WR is hotter in the NFL right now. Smith has been given a legit QB to get the ball to him, with Smith 2nd in the NFL in receiving yards with 609 yards, with  27 receptions and 3 TDs to date. This week, he faces a prime matchup that favours the ever passionate Smith. CB Dunta Robinson has been thrown to 27 times with 21 completions and his partner in Brent Grimes, thrown to 26 times with 14 completions. No doubt, Smith will get doubled. If the run game can have success and the TE’s can get in the game early, look for that safety to worry less about Smith, leaving Smith one on one with Robinson or Grimes – a dangerous move if you’re Atlanta’s defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder. Either way, Smith will be a factor as a target or a decoy.

DE Charles Johnson vs. OT Sam Baker

Charles Johnson has more than earned his big pay check that he earned this offseason. Going into week 6, he has a sack in every game (12 sacks in his last 12 games) & is a constant threat, pressuring and harassing quarterbacks. Along with the Panthers other starter at DE, Greg Hardy, the Panthers pass rush continues to improve. Look for the Panthers to have some more success against a shaky Falcons offensive line that has given up 14 sacks already this season. The Panthers D must be licking their chops, knowing what kind of success they could potentially have if they execute. Either a sack or some turnovers would suffice, just so long as QB Ryan stays off the field, along with his battered offensive line.  Look for a TE or a double team to possibly come over to Baker’s side to help seal the edge to give Ryan more time in the pocket to find his WRs downfield.

CB Chris Gamble vs. WR Roddy White

Looking at tape this week & watching some of the numerous drops Roddy White has had this season, Panthers CB Chris Gamble must be loving the thought of how good he might have it come Sunday. No doubt, the WR dropping a few here and there will make his life easier but at any time, White is a threat and could find his hands this week. Gamble still has to do his job and to date, has had an exceptional season shadowing some of the league’s best WRs. If he can shutdown White and keep Ryan’s target to TE Tony Gonzalez, that will help the Panthers D not have to worry about one less threat, as they’ll no doubt have their hands full with Gonzalez over the middle and RB Michael Turner churning out some solid yardage also, this season. The Panthers D ranks 15th in passing defense, giving up an average of 231 yards per game. If the Panthers can keep Ryan to 150-200 yards with a TD and a few turnovers, the offense should be able to take over and capitalize.

As the players take to the field for another divisional matchup in a few hours time, no doubt it will be a game added to the history between these 2 clubs. Coming into this week, the Falcons historically hold the edge over the Panthers with a 20-12 lead since Carolina came into the league in ’95. Both teams are looking to rebound, having a less than ideal start to the season, Carolina losing 3 straight now, the Falcons coming off a big loss against the Packers, it will be a fun game for Falcon & Panther fans alike.

The key to this game, what it all comes down to in the end is QB play – stating the obvious. Ryan has looked less than sharp; unable to make the plays he did in seasons past and the rookie sensation Cam Newton – an unknown to the Falcons, stealing the spotlight and looking to get the offense balanced, consistent and on their way to hopefully, their 2nd win of the year and the start of a streak.

Big plays are key for the Panthers. They’ve turned this offense around from a boring season last year to an explosive, high scoring offense this season, lead by Smith & Newton. If they can take advantage of the Falcons less than solid D, they’ll force Ryan to have to make plays with his arm, rather than have their O pound away with Turner which is what they’ll aim to do early. The Falcons O, will want to control the game with Turner and take advantage of the Panthers soft run D. The Panthers run D has been average, getting gashed for big yards in 4 out of the 5 games they’ve played. If Atlanta can keep their offense on the field and Cam Newton off the field, it’ll make things exceptionally hard for the Panthers to try and score with less plays. Playing from behind is the last thing Carolina needs right now.

Both teams would prefer to hold the ball, win the time of possession battle and keep their opposing offenses on the sidelines but one team. We should see a heavy dose of run early from both teams, maybe a few exchanges of punts and a real slog fest. I expect a lower scoring game for both teams, as both sides are evenly matched. It will be an arm wrestle, but in the end I see Carolina prevailing 24-17 with Newton throwing 2 TDs and DeAngelo Williams scoring on the other one. I expect a big day from Panthers WR Steve Smith and Falcons RB Michael Turner, but I expect Ryan to turn the ball over, helping the Panthers get a lead early and sitting on it, forcing the Falcons to win on the back of Ryan.

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