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NFL Preview - Carolina (2-13) at Atlanta (12-3)



By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Falcons had a long winning streak come to an end and dreams of claiming the No. 1 seed for the NFC Playoffs were put on hold in a loss to the division-rival New Orleans Saints Monday night.

While the defending Super Bowl champion Saints may give Atlanta the biggest challenge from teams inhabited in the NFC South, the last-place Carolina Panthers are next in line to try and keep the Falcons from popping champagne corks this Sunday in the regular-season finale from the Georgia Dome.

The playoff-bound Falcons, who have the conference's best record at 12-3, can clinch the NFC South, a first-round bye and home-field advantage for the playoffs with a victory over Carolina, something they did convincingly in a 31-10 road rout of the Panthers back on Dec. 12. Atlanta rode running back Michael Turner to victory that day, as he barreled his way to 112 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries.

That was the last time Turner reached the century mark in rushing, though, as he has been held to 82 and 48 yards on the ground, respectively, in his last two games.

Turner was one of a franchise-best and NFL-high seven Falcons to be named to the NFC's Pro-Bowl roster on Tuesday, joining defensive end John Abraham, tight end Tony Gonzalez, fullback Ovie Mughelli, special teamer Eric Weems, wide receiver Roddy White and quarterback Matt Ryan.

More commonly known these days as "Matty Ice", Ryan passed for a season-low 148 yards with a touchdown in the recent 17-14 loss to the Saints. With the ground game put on hold, the Falcons were trying to piece together some sort of identity on offense.

Falcons head coach Mike Smith didn't seem concerned with the lack of production on the ground following Monday's loss.

"No, not at all," he said. "We didn't get the yards that we would have liked to [Monday]. It wasn't as efficient, but this is a football team that at the core of what we do is running the football. We will always be a team that's going to run it. We just didn't do it very well [Monday]. Again, you have to talk about the whole body of work. We're talking about one night, but this is a good football team."

Atlanta has been a complete football team this season and had an eight-game winning streak come to an end in Week 16. It was also the club's first loss at home this season, as the Falcons fell to 19-2 lifetime as the host when Ryan's under center.

Ryan has recorded a passer rating of more than 100 points in four of his seven home games in 2010, including a season-high 118.1 rating in a win over Cincinnati on Oct. 24. The Falcons are 15-0 all-time when Ryan has a rating over 100.

Panthers linebacker Jon Beason had hoped to face Atlanta's starters in the season finale, and got his wish after a New Orleans victory.

"The thing you hope for is maybe [Atlanta] can lose this week and maybe they'll have to play their starters Week 17," Beason said before the Falcons dropped a game at home for the first time in 2010. "You want to go out and compete against the best. It's always tough when you know a team is going to rest their guys."

Carolina can't get this season over soon enough and fell to 2-13 following last week's 27-3 loss at Pittsburgh. It was overmatched in all phases of the game and is now in line for the No. 1 pick in next April's NFL Draft.

The Panthers have never previously made a pick at the No. 1 spot. They won a coin toss with fellow expansion team Jacksonville for the top selection in the 1995 draft, but traded it to Cincinnati. Carolina picked quarterback Kerry Collins at the fifth spot in that draft, and he eventually led the team to an NFC title game appearance. The Panthers are hoping one of the few college stars coming out this season can achieve similar success.

Speaking of success, there was actually a bright spot from Carolina's defense in the form of defensive end Charles Johnson in the Pittsburgh game. Johnson had two of Carolina's three sacks against the Steelers and tied a team record with one in six consecutive contests. Kevin Greene was the last player to turn the trick, back in 1998. Johnson owns seven sacks in his past six games and a career-best 11 1/2 on the season. He had 10 total over his first three professional seasons.

Panthers head coach John Fox will have his players by his side, since this could be the last time that happens. Fox is on the proverbial hot seat and was able to make a name for himself by guiding the Panthers to several playoff appearances, including a trip to the Super Bowl, during a tenure that began in 2002. However, with his contract expiring at the end of the season and Carolina sinking to the bottom of the NFL pack, the general consensus is that Sunday's game will be his final one with the organization.

SERIES HISTORY

Atlanta leads the all-time set with Carolina, 19-12, following its above- mentioned 21-point triumph in Charlotte back in Week 14, and also dealt the Panthers a 28-20 defeat at the Georgia Dome last season. Carolina had won in Atlanta three straight years from 2005-07, but has lost in each of its last two attempts as the visitor in this series. The Falcons last pulled off a season sweep of the Panthers during the 2004 campaign.

Fox enters Sunday's contest with a 7-10 career mark against Atlanta, while Smith is 3-2 against both Fox and Carolina over his career.

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

It can easily be assessed that the Panthers have some work to do in order to regain the glory of years past. The Jimmy Clausen experience has yet to work out, as the former Notre Dame quarterback wasn't able to make the referees raise their hands on a consistent basis much like Touchdown Jesus did in South Bend. Clausen was thrust into the spotlight when starter Matt Moore, who ended the year with five touchdown tosses, was lost for the season in late October. Clausen (1,376 passing yards, 2 TD, 8 INT) completed 10-of-23 passes for 72 yards and an interception against the Steelers. The Panthers are 32nd in the league with averages of 142.3 passing yards, 256.3 total yards and 12.4 points per game. If there's an offensive MVP on the team, running back Jonathan Stewart should garner those honors. Stewart has played in 13 games, running for 739 yards on 165 carries with two touchdowns, and could finish with the lowest output of his three-year career after gaining 836 yards in his rookie season of 2008 before a 1,133-yard campaign a year ago. Stewart has gained 531 rushing yards and a touchdown in the past five weeks, however. Fellow running back Mike Goodson (438 yards, 3 TD) is second on the team in rushing. Veteran wide receiver Steve Smith (46 receptions, 2 TD) is having one of his worst seasons as a pro and will try to go out on a good note.

Abraham (39 tackles, 13 sacks, 1 INT) not only had his first career interception against the Saints, but he also added a sack to bring his team- high total of 13. The veteran defensive end should have a field day against Carolina's offensive line and wreak havoc on Clausen. Abraham is currently second in the NFL in sacks behind Dolphins linebacker Cameron Wake (14), and his interception of a tipped Drew Brees pass was Atlanta's 21st of the season, which is good enough for fourth in the league. Leading tackler Curtis Lofton (118 tackles) also has two sacks and an interception this season. He ended with 11 stops in Monday's loss to the Saints, while defensive end Chauncey Davis (23 tackles) picked off a Brees pass and rumbled 26 yards for a score in defeat. The Panthers will most likely send Stewart and Goodson between the tackles early and often to establish the run game before Clausen tests the waters through the air. Atlanta is 12th against the rush as opposed to its 23rd-ranked pass defense, but the Falcons limited Brees to his second lowest-passer rating of the season with a 77.1 mark. Cornerback Brent Grimes (80 tackles) is enjoying a solid season under the radar and leads the team with five picks. Safety William Moore (64 tackles) also has five interceptions this season.

WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL

Ryan (3,469 passing yards, 26 TD, 9 INT) will look for a better showing this weekend after getting the week started with a lousy performance against the Saints. He threw for only 148 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions, but was sacked only once. In the first meeting with Carolina, the former Boston College star was 20-of-34 passing for 227 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Ryan still has 32 wins as a pro and can tie Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the most victories by a quarterback in first three seasons since 1970. With a .905 winning percentage at home, Ryan has a good chance at matching the former Miami Dolphins gunslinger. Ryan's 26 touchdown passes this season are tied with Chris Miller, who threw for 26 touchdowns back in 1991, for the third-most in franchise history. Ryan has also thrown a scoring pass in 14 consecutive games and hopes to beat Carolina's above-average defensive backfield with Pro Bowl receiver White (109 receptions, 1,327 yards, 9 TD), who caught 11 touchdown passes a year ago and has eclipsed the 1,300-yard mark in a season two years in a row. He's also is the first player in team history to accomplish that feat. White has caught a career-high 109 passes in 2010, giving him 424 in his career. Only Terance Mathis hauled in more passes in a Falcons uniform, with 573 from 1994 to 2001.

Johnson (61 tackles, 12 sacks) will try to add to his sack total on Sunday and had one of three Carolina takedowns of Ryan in the first matchup with Atlanta. He has a sack in six straight games. With nothing to play more besides pride, the Panthers should have no doubts or concerns going into this one. Beason (109 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and free safety Sherrod Martin (78 yards, INT) both had eight stops in the first meeting against the Falcons, while outside linebacker and leading tackler James Anderson (120 tackles, 4 sacks, 1 INT) had six stops. The Panthers are 23rd against the rush, allowing 125.5 yards on the ground per game, and rank 11th in pass defense (209.3 ypg). Carolina is also rated 24th in the league with 25.1 points allowed per contest and can expect to see a healthy dose of Turner before figuring out a way to stop him. The Panthers limited Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall to 65 yards and a score on 18 touches and have recorded 17 sacks in the past six games. Defensive tackle Derek Landri (41 tackles, 3 sacks) has started all 15 games in his first season in Carolina and posted three stops, including a sack, against the Steelers. Safety Charles Godfrey (80 tackles) hopes to add to his team-leading total of five interceptions on Sunday, while cornerbacks Richard Marshall (84 tackles, 3 INT) and Captain Munnerlyn (42 tackles, 3 INT) are tied for second among Carolina players with three picks.

FANTASY FOCUS

Even though the Panthers have nothing to play for and most leagues have already completed the fantasy season, there are still plenty of ones that are still in action. Stewart and Goodson should see a healthy dose of carries, while it isn't foolish to give wideouts Steve Smith and David Gettis the start in the season finale. Kicker John Kasay has made all eight tries between 20-29 yards and 11-of-14 attempts from 40-49 yards away. He is 3-of-4 from 50-plus.

The Falcons failed in their bid to capture the NFC South and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, leaving Sunday's game on the shoulders of the players who got them there. The same rings true in fantasy, as Atlanta will run out a quintet of stars in Ryan, Turner, White, Gonzalez and kicker Matt Bryant. Bryant has booted all 11 tries from 20-29 yards, eight of his nine attempts from 30-39 yards away and seven of his nine kicks between 40-49.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Falcons couldn't have a better matchup to lock up the NFC's top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs. They're a dominant 6-1 at home and, besides Monday's loss, have made life a living hell for visiting teams. "Matty Ice" will keep it cool in this one and Turner is destined to cap the regular season on a high note before resting his weary body during the bye. It sure will be tough trying to unseat Atlanta at home, and Carolina wants no part of what the atmosphere will be like Sunday in Georgia.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 33, Panthers 13

12/30 14:41:26 ET

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