The Falcons and Panthers have always had a good rivalry, but things really intensified last year in which the Falcons split their season series with Carolina.
The first game was a nail biter that the Panthers choked away at the Georgia Dome on a Cam Newton fumble that would lead to a decisive Matt Bryan field goal with five seconds left that would give the Falcons a 30-28 victory.
It was here that Matt Ryan screamed obscenities towards the Panthers after the Falcons won, yelling, "Get the f— off our field!" as the Panthers walked to the locker room demoralized.
The second game that year was all Panthers, as they exacted their revenge against the Falcons, winning 30-20 in a game in which the score didn't even remotely reflect the beat down the Panthers gave the Falcons.
It was before this game that Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy said that the Panthers were better than the Falcons despite the difference in the team's records (the Falcons were 11-1 at the time and the Panthers were 3-9). After backing his words up on that particular day, Hardy yelled the same obscenity towards Ryan that the Falcons quarterback had said to Carolina.
With the teams once again finding themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum (this time the Panthers are trending up, while the Falcons are trending down), it'll be interesting to see how this one plays out this weekend in Charlotte.
Here are our keys to Sunday's game:
In the last meeting between these two teams, Cam Newton's normal inconsistencies were non existent. Newton went 23/35 for 287 yards for two touchdowns and rushed nine times for 116 yards.
This year, Newton has had a solid year so far, throwing 12 TDs to five interceptions and throwing for 1,552 yards while completing 64.9% of his passes.
The Falcons have always had issues containing mobile quarterbacks, and have had a hard time against any quarterback so far this year. The Falcons have given up 300 yards passing or more three times this season. The average passer rating against this defensive unit is 110.
Quarterbacks have been dissecting this unit, and if this trend continues, it will be a long day against Cam Newton, who is having his most consistent season thus far in his young career.
Mike Nolan's unit has to find a way to contain Newton by making sure he stays in the pocket and can't create plays with his legs. The defensive line has to generate pressure on Newton to take the pressure off of the young secondary that was taken to task last week by Carson Palmer.
This will be the key to the game on defense for the Falcons. If Newton has enough time to pass, it will be lights out. If Osi Umenyiora and Jonathan Babineaux can get a couple of sacks and keep Newton from settling in, the Falcons have a shot against the Panthers.
Carolina has given up 21 sacks this year, so their offensive line isn't impregnable. Like he did against Tampa Bay, Nolan must dial up the pressure and dial it up often.
THE PRESSURE IS COMING FOR MATT RYAN
Matt Ryan has been harassed all season, taking hit after hit. But before the game against Arizona, the most he had been sacked in a game was three. Arizona sacked him four times, and the constant pressure forced four interceptions, a season high for Ryan.
The Panthers have 22 sacks this season, so they will be looking to get many more even with Ryan releasing the ball faster than Prime Time Deion Sanders returning a pick six.
DE Charles Johnson leads the Panthers with six sacks and the outspoken, aforementioned Hardy is second with five sacks. That's a combined 11 sacks from the two key pass rushing positions on the team.
Getting Sam Baker back could certainly help things, but the veteran left tackle is questionable for Sunday's game. It's unknown whether or not he will go.
This is a mismatch for the Falcons offensive line, as this will be the toughest DE combo they've had to defend against this year. If Baker can go, the Falcons will have a better chance than without him. Either way, Ryan will be under constant pressure on Sunday. It will be important for Ryan to keep up the quick strike effort and keep the ball moving.
The Falcons running game has been virtually missing in action the entire season. And it's only gotten worse. After rushing for 146 yards against Miami, the Falcons have rushed for 58 yards against New England, 64 against the Jets, 18 against Tampa Bay and 27 against Arizona.
The offensive line is bad at protecting Matt Ryan, but they are flat out atrocious blocking for the running game. They have been getting outperformed on a weekly basis, and haven't given any of their running backs a chance to do anything. There have been some fans that have wanted Steven Jackson gone after the season is over. But how can the veteran running back even have a chance to do anything when he's been constantly met behind the line of scrimmage by at least one defender on nearly every rushing attempt last week?
The offensive line must find a way to open some lanes up for Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers, or once again, the Falcons will be forced to throw the ball so many times (61 last week), that the Panthers can just anticipate the pass every time.
It won't be any easier against Carolina than it was against Arizona. Carolina has the second best run defense in the NFL.
TIME: 1:00 EST
RADIO: 790 THE ZONE AM/STAR 94.1 FM
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