The Carolina Panthers can clinch the No. 2 seed in the NFC and a first-round bye against the Atlanta Falcons, who have an opportunity to play spoiler to their NFC South rivals and end their disappointing season on a high note.
The Panthers began their season 1-3, but have roared back by winning 10 of their last 11 games. Their only blemish in that stretch came to the Saints in Week 14, a loss they avenged at home last week with a 17-13 win to take control of the NFC South. Either a win over the Falcons or a loss by the Saints will clinch the division for Carolina.
At 4-11, the Falcons' playoff hopes evaporated long ago. But if you're expecting them to roll over and play dead for a top draft pick, consider their performance on Monday night against the 11-4 49ers, who needed a pick-six in the red zone to stave off a late Falcons rally.
Meet the Falcons
Atlanta has actually been quite competent over the last month, going 2-2 with a one-point loss to the Packers and a near-upset of the playoff-bound Niners. Part of that success has been the resurgence of veterans Steven Jackson and Roddy White. Jackson has scored five touchdowns in his last four outings, compared to just two in his other seven games. White has averaged 102.8 yards per game in that same span. His highest total in his other eight games was 45 yards.
The defense has played better as well, but is still struggling, particularly against the run. The Falcons allow an average of 136 rushing yards per game, second-to-last in the league. Facing one of the better ground attacks in the NFL will be even more difficult on Sunday as defensive tackle Corey Peters is out and Sean Weatherspoon is questionable after missing last week.
Meet the Panthers
The maturation of Cam Newton has been a major factor in the Panthers' unexpected surge. While he could finish with career lows in both passing and rushing yardage, turnovers are down and his completion rate is a career-high 62.1. He will likely be without the services of veteran receiver Steve Smith (knee) on Sunday, but it is actually tight end Greg Olsen who leads the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
The Panthers have one of the elite defenses in the NFL, ranking first in scoring and second in total yardage. The strength of the unit is its linebacking corps, which is arguably the strongest unit outside of San Francisco. Middle backer Luke Kuechly piled up 24 tackles in the win over the Saints and is third in the league in that category. Thomas Davis is second on the team in tackles and also has two picks and four sacks.
Local Takes: Falcons
The Falcons are still in the running for the No. 3 pick in the draft, though they're No. 8 as things stand now. James Rael at The Falcoholic explains:
In short, if the Falcons lose and the Redskins, Jaguars, Raiders, Browns, Buccaneers, and Vikings win on Sunday, the Falcons will pick third. Not exactly a likely scenario, but no matter what, the Falcons are in prime territory to nab a real game changer. We all know how badly they need to improve along the offensive and defensive fronts; they'll have their chance to do just that, even if Clowney is out of reach.
Local Takes: Panthers
Carolina, on the other hand, actually still has an outside shot at grabbing the NFC's No. 1 seed, but needs considerable help to do so. BW Smith at Cat Scratch Reader breaks down the scenario that would land the Panthers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
1. Carolina wins against Atlanta
2. San Francisco wins its final two games (vs. Atlanta*, at Arizona)
3. Seattle loses to St. Louis
If this scenario plays out, San Francisco will win the NFC West due to their tiebreaker over Seattle. Seattle would be the #5 seed due to being a Wild Card team, and Carolina would be the #1 seed due to owning the tiebreaker over San Francisco thanks to their 10-9 victory back in Week 10.
(*San Francisco beat Atlanta last Monday)
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Falcons Guaranteed 8th Pick in 2014 Draft, 3rd Overall Pick Still in Reach http://t.co/f52reSDHNU— The Falcoholic (@TheFalcoholic) December 24, 2013
Thankfully Smitty's injury is only a sprained PCL. He's out next week, but a first round bye would do wonders for him. Get it done Panthers!— Cat Scratch Reader (@CatScratchReadr) December 23, 2013
Four out of five experts on SB Nation's panel picked the Panthers to win. David Fucillo was the lone dissenter, going with the Falcons.
The Panthers opened up as 7½-point favorites, according to OddsShark.com.
A win gives the Panthers the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. A loss coupled with a Saints win or tie would drop them to the No. 5 or 6 seed, depending on the outcome of the 49ers game.