Falcons Playoff Hopes Rest On Win Over Carolina: 5 Things to Know
Everything is ont he line for the Falcons and the Panthers.
Both franchises have a combined nine divisional titles (eight as members of the same division) and two Super Bowl appearances, with the Falcons appearing in Super Bowl XXXIII and the Panthers appearing in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
The Panthers and Falcons have played each other twice a season every season since 1995, as members of both the NFC West (1995-2001) and NFC South (2002-present) divisions. Their games have been marked by intensity, close scores, and remarkable performances.
It is also known as the I-85 Rivalry due to Atlanta and Charlotte (home of the Panthers) being only four hours apart on Interstate 85. Indeed, games between the two feature large contingents of Falcons fans at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte and Panthers fans at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
These teams are about as close as they can get going into this weekend as the winner of the contest, which will be played in Atlanta, will claim the NFC South division. The loser will be home for the new year, hoping to erase the memory of a season that did not reach expectations.
Here are five things to know about this mammoth matchup this Sunday, according to the Falcons website.
THE OFFENSIVE LINE MARCHES ON
If you've paid close attention the past few games, you probably noticed that Matt Ryan's uniform looks a bit cleaner after games. Credit the big men in front of him for that as the offensive line has made last year's 44 hits on Ryan — the most of his career — seem like a distant memory.
The flux up front has been no different from a year ago as the Falcons have put an astounding 15 different combinations in to protect Ryan this year. Since the bye week, however, the waters have suddenly calmed up front and the group of five has been able to gel.
In the last four games, the Falcons offensive line has only given up three sacks after giving up three to Cleveland in a loss. The effect of that has been easy to measure as the Falcons' offense has put together some big games during that span.
"I think the biggest thing is just repetition, being out there together, trying to get the communication down, all those sorts of things, get a feel for each other," guard Justin Blalock said. "Unfortunately, that does take time, but now that we've had a little bit, I think that we're starting to see some progression in those things that we needed to do."
THE GROWTH OF DEVONTA FREEMAN
Freeman's touchdown run against the Saints has many Falcons fans excited about the Florida State product's future. Humble by nature, Freeman's focus during film study Monday wasn't on what he did well; instead, he was making a list of the things he needs to do better.
He said that the experience he's been getting on the field, especially the snaps he got in Sunday's game in New Orleans as his role increased, have been adding to his confidence. As someone who won't ever find himself satisfied, however, the focus is always going to be what he can do better the next time he steps on the field.
"I think I grew a little bit (on Sunday), but there's still a lot of room for improvement," Freeman said. "I just felt like a great a little bit as far as the playbook, (working with) Matt Ryan, adjusting to the game speed, but I feel like I developed a little bit in that game. But it's a progression league, so I've got to get better and better every week."
THE CALMNESS OF RYAN
Sunday's must-win game against the Carolina Panthers could cause players to get extra nervous or distracted, taking away from their natural ability on the field. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan personifies his "Matty Ice" nickname in such clutch situations, thanks to his seven years of experience and focused preparation.
"From the quarterback position, you really have to settle yourself down and just go out there and execute and play the way you're capable of," Ryan said. "I've got a lot of experience doing that, and I trust in my routine; I think that's one of the things in these types of situations that you have to believe in."
The Falcons run defense has seen a drastic improvement in the last month, highlighted by its defensive-front production and the team's tackling machine, Paul Worrilow, who ranks fourth in the league with 136 tackles. Worrilow knows every tackle attempt is crucial, making a stop on impact, including Sunday against the likes of Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart.
"That’s big," Worrilow said. "Especially when you have these one-on-one tackles where you wrap up and drive them back. We have to be sure we don’t give up those extra yards upon contact or at the very least hold them up until the whole gang can get there."
Also on Wednesday, Worrilow received the "Good Guy Award," presented by the Atlanta chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America to the player for his qualities and professional style in helping pro football writers do their jobs. Falcons safety William Moore won the award last season.
As tight a game this could be, I think the game boils down to two components – the passing of the Falcons and the running of Carolina.
In the end, Matt Ryan is more likely to have a better day than the Panthers running backs. Plus, this is a home game for Atlanta and for that reason, the home team gets the push.
FALCONS 24 PANTHERS 23