NFL Preview - Carolina (6-8-1) at Atlanta (6-9)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - It will be survival of the fittest Sunday afternoon between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers at the Georgia Dome.
The winner will claim the NFC South title and punch a ticket to the playoffs, albeit with a losing record. That's how the cookie crumbles in the NFL.
Atlanta is trying to reach the playoffs for a fourth time in five years and erase a painful 4-12 campaign of 2013. The Falcons have benefited by playing in a porous division this season and took care of the NFC South-rival New Orleans Saints with Sunday's 30-14 victory in the Big Easy.
Matt Ryan threw for 322 yards on 30-of-40 passing with a touchdown and no interceptions. He had wide receiver Julio Jones back in the lineup after a hip injury kept him out of a loss to Pittsburgh the previous week. Jones recorded his third straight 100-yard game, catching seven passes for 107 yards.
Jones has recorded 28 receptions for 555 yards and two scores in his last three games for the Falcons, who had lost two straight and three of four games. Jones leads the NFC with 100 receptions for 1,535 yards and was named to the Pro Bowl.
"Julio has had an unbelievable year. The production that he's put on the field that he's shown has been impressive," Ryan said. "Even for a teammate to kind of step back and look at it he's been incredibly impressive."
Roddy White is the veteran of the receiving core and has enjoyed success in his career against the Panthers. White, who is close to another 1,000-yard season with 817, has six touchdown catches in the past five encounters against Carolina, amassing 40 receptions for 536 yards.
Ryan, of course, is the one who has to get the ball to his playmakers. He has prevailed in five of the last six home starts against Carolina with 11 TDs and three INTs in that stretch. Ryan has thrown for more than 4,000 yards in each of the previous four seasons, and is aiming for a fifth straight 300-yard passing game Sunday.
Matty Ice talked about the do-or-die situation on Sunday at the Dome.
"This is what you worked so hard during the offseason and during training camp is to have opportunities like this late in the year, where everything is on the line. That's fun," Ryan said. "I think guys are going to enjoy the moment. We're going to prepare as best as we can all week. Then, go cut it loose and play the way that we're capable of on Sunday."
Ryan hasn't been sacked in each of the previous two games and has gone down just twice in the past four.
"I think our offensive line has done a great job. We've had, even last week, we had Gabe Carimi come in and step up with Jon Asamoah out. He did a really nice job for us," Ryan said of the protection. "I give credit to those guys for battling all year long, and continuing to get better as the year progressed."
Still, winning the NFC South and going to the playoffs is most important.
"We have a game at home and if you win, you're in," Ryan said. "We are where we are and we're excited about our chances."
Ryan is back home, where owns a 39-13 record with 86 touchdown passes and 33 interceptions. Ryan has thrown at least one touchdown in 20 straight games dating back to 2013.
The Panthers are excited for their chances, too, with three consecutive wins following six straight defeats and one tie.
Carolina's revival has brought the team to the precipice of a second straight division title. In Sunday's 17-13 win versus the Cleveland Browns, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton returned from a one-game absence to pass for 201 yards with a touchdown and an interceptions. He also rushed for 63 yards and a score, showing no signs of fractures to his lower back suffered in a car accident earlier this month.
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera was pleased with how his team, especially Newton, fought back to set up a crucial showdown in Atlanta.
"In spite of the things we've gone through ... it all comes down to one game," Rivera said. "I think we've shown some resilience and we've fought our way through it. I'm pleased with the fact that we have the opportunity."
Newton said it was tiring to go through the last few weeks, but it has paid off so far. He has had Jonathan Stewart to lean on in recent weeks, as the running back posted 122 yards on 24 carries versus Cleveland. Stewart is averaging 117.3 yards per game in his last three.
The Panthers will try to attack the Falcons through the air, however, because they are allowing an NFL-high 291.1 passing yards per game. Atlanta will be without safety William Moore for the rest of the season because of an injured shoulder.
Second-year safety and former seventh-round pick Kemal Ishmael will fill the vacancy left by Moore in the defensive backfield.
"He's continuing to improve and mature as a safety and a defensive back," Falcons head coach Mike Smith said of Ishmael. "It's a next-man-up mentality. He's played more snaps this year than William has played so he's got a lot of experience as a second-year player with scrimmage snaps."
Ishmael leads the Falcons with four interceptions and picked off Newton back in Week 11.
Panthers rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin will try to beat the Falcons over the top and is second among first-year players with 999 yards and third with nine touchdowns. Tight end Greg Olsen had a TD catch in five of the past six meetings with Atlanta, which squeezed out a 19-17 win in Carolina on Nov. 16. Matt Bryant connected on four field goals, including a 44-yarder late in the fourth quarter.
Benjamin had 109 yards and a score on nine catches in that one. Jones was held to 59 yards on six receptions for Atlanta, which leads the all-time series with the Panthers, 24-15. Smith owns an 8-5 record against the Panthers and is 23-18 against division opponents since 2008.
The only other team to make the playoffs with a losing record was Seattle (7-9) in 2010.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Panthers have played well this month lately with 11 wins over the previous 12 games in December. They went 11-1 down the stretch last season.
Newton has won three of his last four starts against the Falcons, and in seven career starts in this series, the former Heisman Trophy winner owns 11 TD passes and four rushing scores. Newton is ready to cash in on a possible playoff spot and division crown.
"We're prepared for this moment," Newton said, "and hopefully we'll seize it."
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula appreciates the effort and strength Newton has put forth in getting himself back on the field.
"What a whirlwind it has been for him, and he never batted an eye," Shula said. "Without sounding too condescending or fatherly, I was very proud of him because I can't even imagine. Just coming back from an injury ... let alone the fact that with the dang car rolling over, it could have been a lot worse."
Newton has been sacked once in his last two games played, but was taken down 25 times in his previous six.
Falcons defensive end Kroy Biermann leads the team with just 4 1/2 sacks, but owns two in his past three. He had a season high-tying seven stops in the first matchups with Carolina, while middle linebacker Paul Worrilow posted nine and leads the team with 136 total tackles.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson knows something about sacking the quarterback and leads the defense with 7 1/2. He sacks Ryan once in the first meeting and has nine in the past seven games in this rivalry. Johnson has recorded 6 1/2 sacks in the past three games at the Georgia Dome.
It's hard to go against Ryan and the Falcons in their own backyard, and if anyone deserves to win the NFC South it's Atlanta because of an unblemished 5-0 record in division play.
Ryan knows how important a win Sunday would be and doesn't care about having a losing record heading into a winner-take-all showdown. To Ryan, the key is getting off to a fast start and putting up as many points as possible to bring the city another division title.
"It'll be very important. Obviously, with what's on the line and where we're at to have an opportunity to continue to play into the playoffs that's the reason I think guys play this game," Ryan said. "You work hard during the offseason; you work hard during training camp and all throughout the year to hopefully have an opportunity to keep playing in January."
With some talented receivers in tow and an instinctive QB under center, the Falcons will ring in the new year as division champs for the third time in four years. Newton made a valiant effort to put the Panthers back on track and will get much-needed rest this offseason in hopes for a better 2015.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Falcons 30, Panthers 21
12/28 09:00:40 ET