First place in the NFC South could be on the line, believe it or not, when the Panthers play host to the Falcons on Thursday night in Charlotte.
The 4-5 Falcons actually had a chance to be a game up in the division over the Buccaneers in Week 9. But Atlanta fell on a last-second field goal to the Chargers, and Tampa Bay completed its miracle comeback against the Rams.
The Falcons and Bucs have the same record, but Tampa’s Week 5 win over Atlanta provides the tiebreaker at the moment. The NFC South is the only division in football without a team over .500.
The Panthers’ season went sideways fast, leading to the firing of head coach Matt Rhule on Oct. 10. But Carolina threatened to be a fascinating story despite that, as they shocked the Bucs in Tampa and battled the Falcons gamely in an overtime loss in Week 8. That is until the Panthers were demolished, 42-21, on Sunday in Cincinnati.
Atlanta might be the most slept-on “contender” by virtue of its record. But if they want to be taken seriously in that regard, the Falcons need to take care of business against a shorthanded Panthers team that’s enduring a lost season and has won only eight of its past 24 games at Bank of America Stadium dating back to 2018.
Here are four things to watch for when the Falcons visit the Panthers on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- For the Falcons, this is a must-win game. It’s hard to say that a 4-5 team definitely should go on the road in a short week and win. But the Falcons already have (narrowly) beaten the Panthers once, and Carolina has axed several coaches and traded away its best playmaker this season. If Atlanta has any designs of pushing Tom Brady and the Bucs and want to be taken seriously as a contender, this game can’t end in a loss. Four of the Falcons’ five losses this season have been by six points or fewer. Three times this season they’ve had a chance to go above .500 this season, a place they’ve not been since late in the 2017 season, but three times they’ve come up short. Coming up short Sunday against the Chargers had an extra sting to it considering how it played out. They’ll have to play this one without center Matt Hennessy, who is on IR with a knee injury, and they do not have cornerback A.J. Terrell (hamstring) back. But the excuses won’t matter if the Falcons can’t make the quick turnaround and finish this game off with a W.
- The Panthers say they’re sticking with P.J. Walker for now. In the narrow loss to Atlanta, Walker played one of the best games of his NFL life, despite struggling early in day, throwing for a career-high 317 yards and the game-tying TD bomb to D.J. Moore in the waning seconds. Walker had the Panthers in a position to win twice -- and twice kicker Eddy Pineiro missed a game-winning try. Last week was a different story. Walker struggled mightily against the Bengals, throwing two first-half picks and completing only three passes before being benched for Baker Mayfield with Carolina down 35-zip. Despite Mayfield looking good in relief (and making the score a bit more cosmetically pleasing), Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks said Walker would get the start Thursday. Mayfield will be on ready-alert. Sam Darnold also has been activated, but Wilks said he’s unlikely to dress three QBs. It will be interesting to see what happens at QB if Carolina falls behind early again.
- Atlanta’s rushing attack is hitting full stride. The Falcons might rank 30th in the NFL in pass yards, but they’re third in the rushing department after registering the third 200-yard rushing performance of the season in last week's loss to the Chargers. Only once this season have they failed to hit triple digits (90 rush yards vs. the Rams in Week 2). The return of Cordarrelle Patterson played a role in Sunday’s 201-yard rushing performance, as he gained 44 of those yards and scored twice on the ground. Rookie Tyler Allgeier chipped in with 99 yards, and Caleb Huntley (34) and Marcus Mariota (24) rounded out the group. Huntley was the standout vs. Carolina two weeks ago with 91 yards, but Mariota also chipped in with 43 yards, including a 30-yard run in OT to set up the game-winning field goal. Carolina’s run defense has struggled much of the season, but no more so than Sunday when Joe Mixon topped the 100-yard mark by halftime and finished with 153 rushing and five total TDs (four rushing). Wilks, a defensive -minded coach who is relishing his second crack as a head coach, surely will do whatever he can to make sure the Falcons don’t match that kind of productivity.
- Great opportunity to get Kyle Pitts, Drake London going. The Falcons have used top-10 draft picks on their two best receiving weapons the past two seasons, yet the struggle to consistently get them involved in the passing game remains. It’s a double-edged sword for head coach Arthur Smith: His offense hums best when the run game is featured, but Smith has to know that Pitts and London must be showcased more at some point. As long as the Falcons remain in contention, it’s hard to argue with the current approach. But there’s also an opportunity for Pitts and London to have at least mini-breakout games Thursday. Only once this season have each gone over the 50-yard receiving mark in the same game. After the Panthers limited Pitts twice in his rookie season, he had one of his better 2022 games in Week 8 against Carolina with five catches for 80 yards and a TD. Carolina is a bit banged up on defense, too, has had trouble finding consistent play in the secondary outside of cornerback Jaycee Horn and must honor the Falcons’ run game. If Mariota connects on a few passes early to Pitts or London early, it could convince Smith to call for a few more shots in the game.