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What to watch: Panthers vs. Falcons

Posted Dec 10, 2010

Based on their current records, it's going to take an unbelievable effort by the Carolina Panthers to knock off the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

The Panthers, however, believe it can happen.

"We're underdogs, but at the end of the day, records don't really matter," Carolina quarterback Jimmy Clausen said. "The only thing that matters is what's inside this building."

The Panthers (1-11) have lost six games in a row, while the Falcons (10-2) have won six in a row to claim first place in the NFC South.

But the history of the series since the formation of the division in 2002 suggests that records don't guarantee anything. The teams have split their meetings each of the last four seasons, and the team that has ended up with the worst record between the rivals has managed to beat the other team in five of eight seasons.

Said Panthers coach John Fox, who is 7-9 against the Falcons: "I'd say records go out the door in this type of game."

This time around, the Panthers certainly hope so.

Believing is half the battle for Carolina this week. Here's a look at some other keys to success.

STEADY AS THEY GO: The Falcons don't do many things better than everybody else, but they do just about everything well.

Quarterback Matt Ryan is a solid but not spectacular 12th in the NFL in passing yards, but he ranks fifth in touchdown-to-interception with ratio, with 21 TDs to just seven picks.

Ryan heads up a balanced offense in which wide receiver Roddy White ranks second in the league in receiving yards per game and running back Michael Turner ranks fifth in rushing yards per game.

"They can score when they want to, it seems like," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "We've just got to go out there, come together as one as go out there and play our hearts out."

The Falcons aren't truly among the elite in the NFL in total offense (10th) and total defense (19th), yet they rank sixth in scoring offense and seventh in scoring defense.

The Panthers must find a way to prevent that level of efficiency on the scoreboard – something many opponents have failed to do.


LOOKING DEEPER: One of the few things the Falcons don't do well is get to opposing passers.

Atlanta ranks 28th in the NFL with just 20 sacks on the season.

Clausen has taken some big hits since returning from a concussion, and even though the Panthers' running game has picked up the pace, the passing game hasn't been able to truly take advantage by posting any big numbers.

Carolina needs a couple of big strikes from the passing game to pull off the upset, and Clausen might have enough time to take a shot or three.


FAIR-WEATHER FALCONS: It's hard to find a chink in Atlanta's armor, but the Falcons haven't yet had to wear extra layers.

Atlanta plays its home games in the Georgia Dome, and its six road games have either been in a dome or outside with game-time temperatures in the mid-60s to mid-70s (even in Cleveland).

The Panthers, meanwhile, have played in chilly conditions on the road the last two weeks, and Sunday's forecast calls for mid-40s with a good chance of rain.

Both of Atlanta's losses have come away from home.


MOTIVATING FACTORS: On the surface, it looks like the Falcons clearly have more to play for, but looks can be deceiving.

The Panthers collectively have shown no signs of giving in, and individually many of the players are trying to position themselves for roles beyond this season. Plus, there's always something to be said for the exuberance of youth.

The Falcons aren't likely to look ahead with New Orleans nipping at their heels, but they do have a potentially tricky trip to Seattle and then a Monday night showdown with the Saints looming.