The Carolina Panthers are flying high on the back of three-straight wins en route to the team's first winning record since 2008. On paper Cam Newton's team has the distinct edge over the struggling Atlanta Falcons, but the NFC South is one of the NFL's least predictable divisions, where any game can be lost as the result of a single mistake.
These missteps are something the Panthers are familiar with. Atlanta holds a 5-1 head-to-head record in the last three years, including three wins over Carolina since Newton was drafted. Conservative football will rule the day, and the Falcons will need to lean on their potent passing offense to knock off one the hottest teams in the NFC.
Meet the Carolina Panthers
Cam Newton described the 2013 team as "rankless and tagless," a locker room without a single voice, but rather a conglomeration of talent unafraid to air their differences. Newton's leadership has been brought into question since he entered the league in 2011, and rather than succumb to the pressure of being the team's sole leader he's eschewing popular belief and leaning on veteran wide receiver Steve Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross.
The result is clear on the field, but more importantly the sideline. Gone is the oft-criticized towel, replaced with a smile and relaxed attitude. Players have good reason to be having fun on Sundays after three-straight wins by an average of 19 points, while boasting one of the NFL's best defenses. The offense is less robotic than in past years; players have the freedom to excel in their roles rather than being forced to fit a rubric.
Meet the Atlanta Falcons
This was supposed to be Atlanta's year. A season where the team could transcend its playoff failings on the back of strong veteran play paired with promising young talent. The additions of Steven Jackson and Osi Umenyiora were supposed to be the final pieces needed to balance the offense and generate more defensive pressure, but the season has blown up.
The roster was old entering 2013, that's without question, but a series of injuries at important positions decimated the team. Atlanta had the talent to make it though the absence of Jackson, but offensive problems mounted as Roddy White started missing games, offensive tackle Sam Baker was forced out with injury and Julio Jones was placed on injured reserve. If this wasn't enough, the defense had to try and right the ship without Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann, underrated but vital elements of the Falcons' defense.
As a result, 2013 has turned from "this is our year," to "it's one of those years" and the Falcons need to limp down the stretch in hopes of better things to come.
Local Takes: Cat Scratch Reader
Jaxon from Cat Scratch Reader is surprised with how the Panthers have become the pick of pundits, and isn't surprised with their ninth ranking in the latest SB Nation power rankings.
I'm not complaining, just surprised at the turnaround in national opinion. It's a pretty accurate description of the transition we have seen in the Panthers over the past three games though.
Local Takes: The Falcoholic
Dave Choate of The Falcoholic examined exactly what went wrong in 2013 and concluded it's a combination of poor organization and bad luck.
Take away the injuries and a few bad bounces and this team's underlying issues are the kind of thing we only grumble about when the Falcons win narrowly against an inferior opponent. With injuries happening at an alarming rate, though, it's impossible not to notice the failures in acquiring talent, developing talent and prioritizing fixes that have built up over time. Sometimes you can't see the mold until the roof collapses.
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It sure is nice to hear the question "Are the Panthers a legit playoff contender?" being asked this late in the season for a change.— Cat Scratch Reader (@CatScratchReadr) October 25, 2013
Basically, today's press conference was acknowledging the Falcons have been terrible and reaffirming will to keep fighting. No tanks coming.— The Falcoholic (@TheFalcoholic) October 28, 2013
Four of SB Nation's five NFL experts picked Carolina to win.
The Carolina Panthers opened as seven-point favorites, according to Odds Shark.