The Falcons head to Carolina for a special pre-Christmas Eve matinee against their division rivals. This game looked to have a lot of potential six weeks ago, but after both the Falcons and Panthers went on five-game losing streaks, it has lost all of its lust.
Carolina even extended their losing streak to six straight games on Monday night against the Saints. That was enough to crush their playoff hopes completely, leading to the Panthers shutting down Cam Newton for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury.
Starting in his place will be Taylor Heinicke, a third-year quarterback out of Old Dominion. Sunday will be his first start in the NFL after spending last season with the Houston Texans. In his career, he’s only appeared in six games and attempted five passes.
That’s promising news for Atlanta coming off their best showing of 2018. The defense was in full stride last Sunday against rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, forcing three turnovers that all resulted in touchdowns, including a Deion Jones pick-six. The pick-six was the first defensive score for the team all season.
Outside of forcing turnovers, the Falcons continued to show off a new-found pass rush that was never around in the season’s first half. Grady Jarrett came up with two sacks and a forced fumbled. Bruce Irvin has 2.5 sacks in the last two contests. Even Vic Beasley has four sacks in the last five weeks compared to a single sack in the first nine weeks combined.
Pressure will undoubtedly be one of the keys again facing a quarterback who has yet to make a start in the NFL, but shutting down Christian McCaffery has to be the main priority. Last time these two teams faced back in week two, McCaffery was targeted fifteen times in the passing game and caught fourteen of them for over one-hundred yards. Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel recognized in his press conference how Carolina’s entire offense revolves around McCaffery, which will be even more obvious with Cam Newton out of the game.
Offensively, this is a marvelous opportunity for the Falcons to show their strength against a Carolina defense that didn’t even allow a touchdown to Drew Brees and the Saints last week.
Atlanta put up forty points on the Cardinals, but that was more of them being the beneficiaries of turnovers than anything else. Matt Ryan was not as crisp as usual, and the offense as a whole faltered in the red zone once again. However, the offensive line did dominate the line of scrimmage, allowing Tevin Coleman to rush for 145 yards on only 11 carries. The only other time Coleman ran for over one-hundred yards in a game was against this very Panthers team.
The Falcons should come into this game as heavy favorites and will have the opportunity to make this Carolina team quit by jumping on them early. However, if they allow the Panthers to stick around and cannot force Heinicke into poor decisions, Carolina’s defense can keep them in the game like they did Monday night versus the Saints.
That said, I see the Falcons defense building off their momentum from last week and shutting down the Panthers. Matt Ryan and this offense won’t have an easy day, but they will do enough to get the job done, and eventually, the Panthers will fold.
Falcons 27, Panthers 10