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17

NFL Preview - Atlanta (3-6) at Carolina (3-6-1)



By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - The Atlanta Falcons finally found success on the road.

It remains to be seen if they can sustain it when they visit the Carolina Panthers Sunday in a battle between NFC South foes at Bank of America Stadium.

The Falcons defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 27-17, on Sunday and ended a five-game losing streak. It was Atlanta's first win since a 56-14 demolition of the Bucs on Sept. 18 at the Georgia Dome.

Steven Jackson ran for a season-high 81 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries for a Falcons team that is 24th in rushing with 97.2 yards per game. The Falcons had 110 yards on the ground and Matt Ryan threw for 219 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

"This was a team win across the board because everyone contributed to this," said Atlanta head coach Mike Smith. "We still have some ground to make up, but it starts with this victory."

Julio Jones caught eight passes for 119 yards and Roddy White ended with six receptions for 72 yards and a score. White needs 73 yards for 10,000 in his career and has five touchdowns and 461 yards in the last four games against Carolina.

White needs three touchdowns to pass Michael Turner (61) for the most TDs in franchise history. Jones is 147 receiving yards short for his second career 1,000-yard season.

Atlanta, which improved to 3-0 in division play, is second in the NFC South despite a losing record at 3-6, but the New Orleans Saints lead the division with a 4-5 mark. Carolina is third at 3-6-1.

Ryan said it's exciting to still be in the mix in the NFC South in November.

"We've got everything we want right in front of us," Ryan said.

Falcons wide receiver and special teams star Devin Hester suffered an ankle injury against Tampa Bay and is day-to-day. Wide receiver Harry Douglas is nursing a foot injury and should be healthy enough to contribute.

The last time the Falcons won two straight road games was in 2012. They are seventh in passing yards (272.4), eighth in total yards (369.7) and 13th in points scored with 24.3.

Carolina is on a short week after it was manhandled, 45-21, Monday night against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton didn't look like himself and passed for 306 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Newton was sacked a franchise-record nine times and appeared injured during some moments.

"He's fine," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "That's all I have to say on that issue."

Newton, of course, entered the season after ankle surgery and a preseason rib fracture. He managed to run for six yards on two scrambles for Carolina, which committed five turnovers on the night, including two on the first two possessions.

"We can't expect to win football games starting out like that," Newton said. "We put a lot of stress on our defense with excellent field position for them with back-to-back turnovers. I should have done a better job by checking the ball down or throwing the ball away."

Newton said he's not playing "good ball" right now and the Panthers have to put a better product on the field. Getting the offense going early against the Falcons is imperative, according to Newton, who reiterated to the media that questions surrounding his health wouldn't exist if the team was winning.

Tight end Greg Olsen and rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin were the lone bright spots in south Philly. Olsen caught six passes for 119 yards and Benjamin finished with three catches for 70 yards and two scores.

The Panthers have lost four in a row since their tie with Cincinnati on Oct. 12, but still have a shot at repeating as NFC South champions. They are 18th in points scored (19.8), 19th in passing yards (225.4), 25th in total yards (320.8) and 27th in rushing yards (95.4).

Carolina's defense was shaken up a bit Monday night, as defensive tackle Star Lotulelei left with an ankle injury and an MRI came back negative. His availability for Sunday's game is unknown and may rest with the bye afterward.

"It's not a high ankle sprain, which is good thing," Rivera said. "The way it was explained to me was that it was kind of like one you would get on a basketball court.

"He's a big guy, and big guys tend to be a little bit slower on ankle sprains, but this is a low ankle sprain as opposed to the high ones, which are the worst ones."

Rivera said defensive end Charles Johnson hyperextended his elbow in the first quarter. Johnson was able to return and should be fine for Atlanta coming in.

"It's just sore, but he should be fine," Rivera said. "Plus, he loves playing Atlanta."

Johnson has eight sacks in the last six meetings with Atlanta and nine in 12 career games. The Falcons lead the all-time series with the Panthers, 23-15, but have lost the last three meetings following a five-game win streak.

Smith owns a 7-5 record against the Panthers and is 21-18 against division opponents since 2008.

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Both the Falcons and have Panthers have struggled on defense this season, so Sunday's game could come down to who makes the most mistakes. Carolina learned that against the Eagles.

If Newton can shake off some rust and get more protection, the Panthers will be in good shape to stay within striking distance of the Saints in the NFC South. That's easier said than done because Atlanta will pin its ears back Sunday in hopes of getting to the quarterback often.

Last week against the Bucs, the Falcons produced a season-high four sacks and added three takeaways. Defensive ends Osi Umenyiora and Kroy Biermann each posted 1 1/2 sacks and safeties Dwight Lowery and Kemal Ishmael both had an interception of Josh McCown.

"Kroy probably had his most productive game of the season," Smith said. "Of course, anytime when you win you have players that are recognized, and he was one of the players that was recognized with his performance. Not only against the run, he set the edge a couple of times and didn't allow the ball to get outside. He put some pressure on the quarterback."

McCown is definitely not like Newton, a big, strong presence in the pocket.

Sunday's game is important for both division foes with the current situation.

"Anytime the Panthers, with our proximity, anytime we get together it's usually a dang barn-burner, and I anticipate it will be," Smith said. "We're looking forward to trying to continue playing well in our division because we know in the long haul that's what we've got to do; we've got to take care of our division first."

The Panthers are 23rd against the run (122.4) and pass (254.4), 25th in total yards allowed (376.8) and points allowed (28.1). They have allowed more than 25 points six times this season, and will see a steady dose of White and Jones. Jackson had 94 yards from scrimmage in the last meeting on Dec. 29, but Carolina allowed a season-low 37 rushing yards on 23 carries Monday night.

Atlanta's defense is much worse. It is 24th in both rushing yards allowed (124.0) and points allowed (26.4), 31st in total yards (404.8) and last in passing yards (280.8). Benjamin and Olsen could give the Falcons fits Sunday.

Benjamin leads all rookies with 659 yards and seven TDs.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

This is an important game for both NFC South foes and the Falcons will come out on top because they're playing better at the moment and don't have too many injury concerns.

Ryan has thrown for 3,017 yards with 20 TDs to 10 INTs in 10 career games against the Panthers. He also has two of the more talented wide receivers in the game. If Atlanta has any hopes of making a playoff run after a disastrous 2013 campaign, winning has to continue in Carolina.

Atlanta is known for its struggles on the road, but something is currently wrong with the Panthers.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Falcons 24, Panthers 21

11/13 13:51:15 ET