Coming into the final weekend of the season, there’s still one division up for grabs – the NFC South. The matchup between Carolina and Atlanta not only impacts the division race, but it also affects whether or not the Falcons make the playoffs. If Atlanta wins then they’re in. Carolina has already locked up a playoff berth, but a win over Atlanta and a loss or tie by the Saints will give the Panthers the division. Kickoff inside the Mercedes-Benz Stadium is at 4:25 PM ET.
This Sunday will mark the 46th meeting between these two teams. Currently, the Falcons hold the advantage with an all-time record of 27-18. The Falcons also have a 16-6 all-time mark against the Panthers at home. This will be the 5th time that these two teams finish a season in Atlanta. The Panthers have won 3 of those 4 previous games. Additionally, Carolina won the first matchup of this season by a score of 20-17.
Carolina (11-4) is 5-2 on the road and locked up a playoff spot last weekend in a last minute win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The same Bucs team will play the Saints this weekend and you can bet the Panthers will be rooting for them. If the Bucs win, and Carolina beats the Falcons, then the Panthers are the NFC South winners and will host a game in the playoffs. If that scenario happens, and both the Vikings and Rams lose this weekend, then Carolina can shoot up to the #2 seed and get a first round bye. Bottom line, Carolina has a lot to play for and won’t be laying down for their divisional rival this weekend.
Atlanta (9-6) is 4-3 at home this year. They need to beat Carolina this weekend to get into the playoffs or hope that Seattle loses to Arizona on Sunday. The Falcons have won 3 of the last 4 games against Carolina and were up 10-0 in their first meeting this season before allowing Carolina to come back and win the game. The Falcons will look to their leaders like Matt Ryan to get a crucial win this weekend.
The spread opened with Atlanta favored by 3 points. It has since gone up to 4 points in favor of the Falcons. The Over/Under opened at 47 points and has gone down to 45 total points.
Despite Atlanta’s desperation to get into the playoffs, I believe Carolina is the better team and not only will cover the spread, but also win the game. The Panthers have a lot to play for this weekend and it’s too much for the team to lay down against a divisional rival. Plus, no team wants to let a divisional foe make the playoffs.
This weekend, I can see Carolina replicating their performance from Week 9 when they defeated the Falcons 20-17. In that contest, the Panthers put up 201 rushing yards with Newton rushing for 86 of them and a TD. It was the first game after trading receiver Kelvin Benjamin and the Panthers relied on their strength – the run game. Rookie McCaffrey also put up 66 rushing yards and a TD.
Since that game, Carolina has gone on to steamroll opponents with their ground game that is a combination of Newton, McCaffrey and Stewart. They’re one of the top rushing teams in the NFL at 134.3 ypg. Atlanta gives up 105.2 ypg and I see them getting trucked over this weekend. Keep in mind, Stewart fumbled twice in the first half as well, which prevented Carolina from putting points on the board. This weekend, I see Carolina protecting the ball more and surpassing the 20 point mark from Week 9.
In that game, Matt Ryan threw for over 300 yards as their run game of Freeman and Coleman was held to just 51 yards. The Panthers have one of the best run defenses and I expect them to shut down Atlanta’s run game again. If that happens, look for Carolina to contain Julio Jones and prevent Matt Ryan from cracking the 300 yard mark.
Both defenses give up 20.3 ppg, but Atlanta has been struggling to put up points over the last 4 weeks as they’ve only averaged 16.5 ppg. Carolina has averaged 30 ppg over their last 5 games and it’s largely due to the play of Newton and their defense. Additionally, Carolina has a healthy Greg Olsen back and he opens up the entire offense. Olsen didn’t play in the matchup between these two teams. Over the last 2 weeks, Olsen has totaled 12 receptions, 143 yards and 1 TD. I expect him to have a great first half this weekend as Carolina tries to jump out to an early lead as they watch the scoreboard to see how the Saints are doing.
Carolina is 6-2 ATS in their last 8 games, 7-2 ATS in their last 9 road games, and 5-1 ATS as an underdog this season. The Falcons are 4-8 ATS in their last 12 games and 1-4 ATS this season as a favorite of 3.5 to 9.5 points.
I see Carolina jumping on the Falcons early and taking at least a 2-score lead into the 4th quarter. Now, if the Saints are blowing out the Bucs then I see the Panthers pulling their starters and resting them for a portion of the second half. This will give the Falcons a chance to come back in the game. However, I don’t see Atlanta winning this contest and I’m going with Carolina in the road upset this weekend by a score of 27-24.