The 4-11 Atlanta Falcons’ 1:00 EST game against the 11-4 Carolina Panthers on FOX seems like an afterthought for both franchises since the Dirty Birds are looking forward to rebuilding for 2014 and the Panthers are preparing for their first playoff run since 2008, but it remains to be highly anticipated due to the impending retirement of Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez.
A mainstay in the passing game for over a decade with the Kansas City Chiefs, Gonzalez has had an excellent five-year run with the Falcons, which at this point has seen Gonzo bring in 405 receptions for 4,131 yards and 35 touchdowns, numbers that only add to what was an already-cemented Hall of Fame career. Gonzalez has gotten the job done again in 2013 for a Falcons’ team riddled with injuries, and through fifteen games the thirty-seven year old leads the team with 79 receptions and 8 receiving touchdowns along with 803 yards, proving that the “old man” has yet to show any rust.
As exciting as it has been to watch Gonzalez this season, it will take quite a showing for this Falcons’ squad to finish this season with a 5-11 record. The Panthers have been on a roll throughout this season thanks to an outstanding defense, great plays by quarterback Cam Newton, and gutsy play-calling by the “Riverboat Gambler” himself, head coach Ron Rivera. Carolina has won ten of its last eleven games, including last week’s 17-13 thriller over the New Orleans Saints, and will win the NFC South with a victory on Sunday. With so much riding on this game, can the Falcons possibly upend the Panthers and end the season on the right note?
It would be quite an upset for Atlanta to top Carolina, which may seem surprising since the Panthers have not defeated the Falcons in the Georgia Dome since 2007. In order for the Falcons to have a shot on Sunday, Matt Ryan has got to make big plays through the air, something that has been absent for the better part of this season. Atlanta has shown a reluctance to spread its receivers out and try to beat opposing defenders deep, instead opting to run dink-and-dunk wide receiver screens that to my knowledge have produced next to nothing (not a surprise considering this weak offensive line).
Instead of hitting receivers on two yard passes and praying they find both a burst of speed and some half-decent blocking, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who could possibly be coaching for his job, needs to open up the field for Ryan, allowing Matty Ice the chance to burn a very dangerous Panthers’ defense. It is no secret that the Panthers have the upper-hand in this matchup, so why not roll the dice and go out guns blazing instead of playing conservatively?
As strange as it may sound, the Falcons should keep their primary focus off of Cam Newton and instead key in on the Panthers’ running game. Anyone that has watched the Panthers play this season knows that Newton has certainly turned a corner in the National Football League (3,230 passing yards with 28 total TDs), but it’s the Panthers’ running game, which ranks 11th in the NFL with 126.1 yards per game, that the Falcons really need to shut down. Rewind back to Sunday’s game against the Saints: Carolina was keeping pace thanks to great defensive plays by Luke Kuechly and company but had failed to make any noise on offense until there was just 1:45 remaining in the first half, when veteran running back DeAngelo Williams found a hole and took off for a 43-yard touchdown to put the Panthers up 7-6. Although Newton eventually won the game for the Panthers’ thanks to a fourteen yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon, the effort of Williams certainly put the Panthers in a spot to have a chance.
Carolina is not nearly as effective when put in passing situations, so frustrating Williams along with fullback Mike Tolbert will push more of the workload onto Newton, the College Park, Georgia native who certainly wants to show out in the Dome. If the Panthers wind up relying on Newton to do everything on offense, you can bet that the Falcons will eventually force one turnover at minimum from the former Heisman Trophy winner, allowing Atlanta the chance to make this matchup a tighter-than-expected game.
Game Prediction: The Falcons have played much better in the last five games although the 2-3 record says otherwise, and the team will stay competitive again on Sunday. The main reason for Atlanta’s success against Carolina will be receiver Roddy White, who has finally turned a corner on the 2013 season and will have 94 receiving yards and two touchdowns on Sunday. Unfortunately, the efforts of White and Tony Gonzalez (8 receptions for 67 yards and one touchdown late in the fourth) will not be enough to slow down Carolina and Newton, who will throw for 321 yards and two touchdowns and also scramble for one seven-yard TD. It is not as painful as the teams’ Monday night loss to the 49ers or the defeat at the hands of the Saints in Week 12, but once again the Falcons wind up on the losing end of a football game. Final Score Carolina Panthers 34, Atlanta Falcons 24