With the slimmest hopes of reaching the playoffs, the Carolina Panthers are set to play the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16. The NFC South rivals will kick off at 1:00 EST on Sunday, December 23, at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. Fans in local markets can watch the game on Fox.
The Panthers are currently listed as 3-point favorites at home. The over/under for the game is set at 48 points. Be sure to check out a full list of this week’s NFL betting odds.
It’s hard to believe that Carolina was once 6-2 and a virtual lock to reach the playoffs. But six straight losses later, the Panthers are 6-8 and have a narrow path back into the playoff picture. The toughest part to swallow for the Panthers is that their last five losses have come by a combined 20 points, so any one of those could have easily gone the other way and completely changed their position in the standings.
Nevertheless, the Panthers will need everything to go perfectly over the final two weeks in order to reach the playoffs. First, they need to win both of their remaining games. They also need the Vikings to lose their last two games. On top of that, the Eagles and Redskins both need to lose this week, and then the Eagles need to beat Washington when those teams meet head-to-head in Week 17. That and only that will get Carolina into the playoffs and salvage what has been a disastrous second half of the season.
Unlike Carolina, the Falcons were actually able to break their five-game losing streak last week, taking care of the Cardinals 40-14. Of course, that wasn’t enough to keep Atlanta in the playoff hunt. The Falcons currently sit at 5-9 and need at least one more win the final two weeks to avoid finishing last in the NFC South. Other than that, there’s nothing on the line this week for the Falcons, who have already started to look ahead toward next season.
For what it’s worth, these two are somewhat bitter rivals, so both teams should bring their best effort. The Falcons have won five of the last six games in this rivalry, including a 31-24 victory in Week 2. Atlanta has also won in two of their last four trips to Bank of America Stadium.
To be honest, I don’t hate the idea of taking the Panthers in this game. As mentioned, their last five losses have all been close, so they haven’t played as poorly as their record indicates. But I can’t swallow points for a team that is finding ways to lose week after week. Last week’s win over Arizona showed me that the Falcons haven’t thrown in the towel just yet, so I’ll lean toward Atlanta and the points.
With every passing week, it becomes more apparent that Cam Newton’s shoulder is nowhere close to 100%. He had a season-low 131 yards passing last week, albeit against a strong New Orleans defense. He also threw another interception, giving him nine in the last six games. But it’s more than that. When Newton throws the ball, you can see in his motion that something isn’t right with his shoulder. There’s even been talk of Carolina sitting Newton the final two weeks of the season, even though the Panthers are technically alive in the playoff hunt. If that happens, leaning toward Atlanta would definitely be the smart play.
The only thing that makes me hesitant to go against the Panthers is their rushing attack. Christian McCaffrey is on the verge of surpassing 1,000 rushing yards on the season while also closing in on 800 yards receiving. On top of that, Atlanta has one of the worst rush defenses in the NFL. Other than last week against the Cardinals, the Falcons haven’t been able to stop anyone from running the ball this season.
However, with either a limited Newton or backup Taylor Heinicke playing quarterback, the Falcons should be able to load the box and commit to stopping the run. McCaffrey managed just 53 yards rushing on 15 carries last week and 63 yards on 16 rushes the week before, so teams are starting to use that tactic. Plus, Carolina’s only touchdown last week came on a trick play with McCaffrey throwing the ball. Clearly, the Panthers are running short on ideas and probably won’t attempt the same trickery two weeks in a row.
In fairness, the Carolina defense is doing their part to give the Panthers a chance. The Panthers limited the high-powered Saints to just 12 points last week and have given up a modest 22 points per game over their last five. However, the Carolina pass defense has had some issues this season. The Panthers also don’t have the same caliber of pass rush they’ve had in recent seasons.
Meanwhile, the Falcons are still a capable offensive team. Matt Ryan has had a good year and Julio Jones remains one of the league’s elite receivers. Even the Atlanta rushing attack came alive last week behind a strong performance from Tevin Coleman. More importantly, I can’t rule out the Ryan-Jones tandem creating some big plays and causing problems for the Carolina defense.
All things considered, the Panthers have too many question marks to make me pick them as a favorite. In a PK, I could maybe justify taking Carolina. But with a field goal to cover for a team that’s in the middle of self-destructing, I feel a lot more comfortable leaning toward Atlanta and the points in this game.