It's crunch time. Get ready for game day, and don't forget the chips as the 2-2 Panthers head to Atlanta to take on the 0-4 Falcons. Here are five things to watch for in the matchup.
Will the offense have a big day?
The Panthers, who put together their highest offensive output of the season last week with 444 yards against the Cardinals, are No. 12 in total offense and No. 18 in scoring offense. But their sights should be set higher this week against the Falcons' defense.
Atlanta is giving up 448.3 yards per game, which would surpass New Orleans' 2012 Super Bowl era record of allowing 440.1 yards per game.
Carolina has missed running back Christian McCaffrey since he's been out with a high ankle sprain. But the club has spread the ball around effectively regardless, with quarterback Teddy Bridgewater leading the way. If the unit can stay in favorable down-and-distances, the offense will have a good shot at remaining on the field to put up points.
Will there be a regression?
Last week, the Panthers set out to improve their third down defense, third down offense, and their red zone efficiency. They were able to put checkmarks next to all three categories.
Arizona was just 3-of-9 on third down while Carolina finished 7-of-11. The Panthers were also 4-of-5 in red-zone efficiency and 3-of-3 in goal-to-go situations.
Those numbers reflect the team focusing on specific elements in practice and implementing them in the game. But those cannot just be one-week aberrations.
Carolina is still No. 31 in third down defense, surrendering 52.2 percent of attempts. And the club is No. 26 in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on nine of 18 trips inside the 20.
A strong performance in those categories will help the Panthers continue to rise up the rankings and give the club a better shot to win, solidifying the corrections to the issues.
Can the Panthers improve their red zone defense?
Like third downs and red zone offense last week, the Panthers focused on improving their red zone defense for Week 5. Through four games, Carolina is one of six teams that has allowed either a touchdown or field goal on each opponent's red zone possession.
Of the 13 drives inside the 20, Carolina has allowed 10 touchdowns and three field goals. The 77 percent opponent touchdown rate ranks 26th in the league.
The Panthers would like to see that 10:3 touchdown to field goal ratio get closer to even. If the defense can hold opponents to three points instead of six in the red zone, that makes it easier on the offense to respond.
The Falcons are middle of the pack in scoring red-zone touchdowns, putting nine of their 15 possessions in the box.
Rookies performing on the defensive line
First-year defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Yetur Gross-Matos have been coming into their own over the last few weeks, and displayed that on one drive in the second half against the Cardinals. Brown had a tackle for loss and an additional tackle for no gain. Then Gross-Matos recorded the first strip-sack of his career, as Tre Boston recovered the fumble to complete the takeaway.
"Those guys are just another key aspect of what we're trying to do," said veteran defensive tackle Kawann Short.
Brown has 10 total tackles, five tackles for loss, and two passes defensed in his first four games. Gross-Matos has six total tackles plus the aforementioned sack and forced fumble. As the first two picks in Carolina's all-defensive 2020 draft class, the club needs both players to continue making impact plays along the defensive line.
Can the Panthers play clean?
The Panthers are 18-32 all-time against the Falcons, having lost the last five matchups. Carolina has won in Atlanta only six times in team history — the last victory coming in 2014.
There might be some demons to exorcise for the Panthers to come away victorious. But one element Carolina can control is taking care of the football.
The Panthers have committed four turnovers in each of their last three losses to the Falcons. Beating a division rival is already difficult. Beating one with four giveaways is a Herculean task.
Carolina's only multi-turnover game this season was the Week 2 loss to the Buccaneers. Otherwise, the Panthers have played pretty clean. They had no giveaways against the Raiders or Chargers and committed just one against the Cardinals.
If Carolina can stay out of the giveaway column and pick up a couple takeaways, then the club will have a strong shot at leaving Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a win.
Carolina is 20-33 all-time against Atlanta.