The Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons meet on Sunday afternoon in a winner-take-all showdown at the Georgia Dome for the division title. The NFC South has a chance to go down as one of the worst divisions in NFL history, but it certainly hasn't lacked in drama this season, with multiple teams trading places at the top and the race for first place coming down to the final game.
It's a simple scenario for both teams: win, and you host a playoff game next weekend; lose, and your season is over. The Falcons are looking for their first postseason berth and division title since 2012, while the Panthers are trying to become the first NFC South team to repeat as champs since the division was created in 2002.
The Falcons snapped a two-game slide with a win last Sunday at the Superdome, eliminating the New Orleans Saints from playoff contention and setting up this Week 17 showdown with the Panthers, who beat the Cleveland Browns to move a half-game ahead of the Falcons in the division standings.
Atlanta beat Carolina earlier this season in a back-and-forth game that the Falcons led 16-3 in the fourth quarter before a late rally by the Panthers fell just short. Carolina missed two potential game-winning field goals in the final two minutes of the game, after Matt Bryant had kicked a 44-yarder with 2:08 remaining that put the Falcons ahead 19-17. If Sunday's battle between these NFC South rivals is just as exciting, we should be in a for a real treat this afternoon.
Regardless of who wins this game, history will be made when the NFC South champion is crowned. The winner is guaranteed to become just the second team to make the postseason with a sub-.500 record, joining the 2010 Seattle Seahawks who won the NFC West at 7-9.
Carolina was left for dead just a few weeks ago when it fell to 3-8-1 following a Week 13 loss at the Minnesota Vikings. The team has rebounded to win its last three games, keeping its slim playoff hopes alive after enduring a six-game losing streak and going more than two months without a win. If the Panthers make the postseason, they would become the first team to do so despite losing six games in a row during the season since the 1970 Cincinnati Bengals. Furthermore, no team has ever gone two full months between wins and still made the playoffs.
The Falcons' postseason odds were near-zero when they entered their bye week with a 2-6 record and riding a five-game losing streak. They've gone 4-3 since then, a respectable mark in the wretched NFC South and one that has kept them on the periphery of the division race over the last month. If Atlanta wins this game, it would go down as just the second playoff team to lose six of its first eight games this season, joining those 1970 Bengals. Also, with a 1-9 mark in non-division games, the Falcons would become the first team to lose that many games outside its division and make the playoffs.
The battle in the trenches between a much-improved Falcons rush defense and a strong Panthers ground game could go a long way towards deciding who wins this game. Atlanta gave up at least 100 rushing yards in six of its first seven games (137.7 yards per game), but has allowed only three of its last eight opponents to reach the century mark (92 yards per game). Carolina's rushing attack ranks eighth this season (122.8 yards per game), and has gone over 100 yards in each of its last 10 games. The Panthers also own the NFL's most prolific run game over the last month, with a league-best 781 yards and 44 first downs via rushing in their past four contests.
Who to Watch
Kelvin Benjamin - If the Panthers can't get their ground game going against Atlanta, they'll need the rookie wide receiver to step up and make some plays against a Falcons secondary that is among the worst in the league. Benjamin enjoyed one of the finest games in his short career against Atlanta in Week 11, with 109 yards and a touchdown on nine catches. Benjamin ranks second among rookies this season in both receiving yards (999) and receptions (72), behind only Odell Beckham Jr.
Benjamin is not the only rookie wideout on the verge of joining Beckham Jr. in the 1,000-yard club -- Mike Evans (925 yards) and Sammy Watkins (997 yards) both are nearing the milestone. The only season in NFL history that featured more than one rookie 1,000-yard receiver was 1986, when Bill Brooks and Ernest Givens reached the mark.
Julio Jones - The Falcons need Jones to be productive and healthy if they are going to have any chance of beating the Panthers this afternoon. Jones missed Atlanta's Week 14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers due an oblique injury, but gutted his way through last Sunday's win over the Saints with seven catches for 109 yards. If he can overtake Antonio Brown (1,570) for the league lead in receiving yards this week, he could join Alfred Jenkins (1981) as the only Falcons to win the receiving yards crown in a season.
When the Georgia Dome opened in 1992, it was the largest cable-supported domed stadium in the world, but it has since been surpassed by the Millennium Dome in London (1999) and the Docklands Stadium in Melbourne, Australia (2000). The stadium is home to the Falcons and the Georgia State football team, and it is one of the most popular multi-purpose arenas in the country. Among the notable events it has hosted include two Super Bowls (XXVIII in 1994 and XXXIV in 2000), the Men's Basketball Final Four (2002, 2007, 2013) and the Olympics in 1996 (basketball, handball, gymnastics).
How to Watch
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
When: 1 p.m.
Online Streaming: Verizon NFL Mobile
The Falcons are 3.5-point favorites at home against the Panthers, according to OddsShark.com.
The experts are decidedly split on this matchup. Five of the eight guys on our panel at SB Nation are picking the Falcons to beat the Panthers, while the CBS Sports experts are divided at an even 4-4.