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Five things to watch against the Falcons: An O-line kind of day

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CHARLOTTE — The Panthers finally get back home after a brutal three-game road swing and will see a familiar face when Atlanta rolls in.

The 6-7 Falcons are part of that messy three-way tie for first in the messy NFC South, while the Panthers are 1-12 and looking for their first win under interim coach Chris Tabor.

Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium (and it will continue to be Bank of America Stadium if you missed that this week). Fans can check out more information on how to watch here.

Here are five things to watch for during the game:

Ikem Ekwonu

Big game for the big fellas

This just in: It's going to rain. And neither one of these teams are really built to throw the ball at the moment, so maybe it's for the best that this could be a two-hour and 40-minute game.

But honestly, that's not the worst thing for the Panthers at the moment.

They ran for 204 yards last week at New Orleans, and that was with the 11-yard deduction for Johnny Hekker when his blocked punt was ruled a fumble and counted off the rushing totals. They ran for a solid 133 the week before against the Bucs, who had only given up one 100-yard rusher all year prior to that one.

Being on a run-first footing is more natural for the Panthers' line in its current state, particularly left tackle Ikem Ekwonu and center Bradley Bozeman. Both are maulers in the run game, better suited to the conditions they're going to see.

And honestly, Ekwonu has been better in pass protection of late. His general pattern has been to play 77 or 78 really good snaps a game and two or three regrettable ones that show up in obvious ways. And it's probably easier to fix two or three bad ones than to find 77 or 78 good ones.

"I think the line's done a nice job the last two weeks in running the football, and so have the backs," interim coach Chris Tabor said. "And I think that I think there's some confidence there that that's taken place.

"And if you think about it, the Tampa game was a rainy game, and we ran the football, and last week, we ran the football again for, what, 200 yards, 205 yards, or whatever it is. So I like the identity of where that's going. And if they say the weather's going to be like it is, and they run the ball, it might be a short game."

Another chance to shine for Derrick Brown

Defensive tackle Derrick Brown has been the most consistent player on defense this year for the Panthers and has earned his reputation around the league as a consistent playmaker. 

Last week's interception against the Saints was impressive in its own way (as he batted a Derek Carr pass off the helmet of guard Cesar Ruiz before catching it on the rebound), as has been the way he's throwing opponents around this year. 

But for defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, part of what makes Brown so effective is the way he approaches his job on a daily basis. Like many coaches, Evero is a morning person, so he goes downstairs to get a workout in around 6 a.m. each day. 

"I try to work out most mornings early in the morning before I get working, and he's always in there," Evero said. "So he's in early, he's working out, he takes care of his body. He's very attentive in the meeting rooms.

"He's got a great personality, he likes to joke around, and so he doesn't know he's not too hard on himself in terms of being super serious, but when it's time to focus in and get the work done on the field in the classroom, in the weight room, he gets it done."

He has definitely been getting it done on Sundays.

Well-rounded run game

While Chuba Hubbard's work of late has earned attention, there was also a Miles Sanders sighting last week. 

Sanders flashed on a 48-yard cutback run (which, not coincidentally, went back to the left and Ekwonu's side), though the Panthers ended up settling for a field goal on that drive. 

Hubbard's going to continue to get the bulk of the work, but having Sanders in the mix can only help the run game. Sanders had 10 carries for 74 yards last week, his best game since he had 18 carries for 72 yards against the Falcons in the opener.

"I think it was great to be able to get Miles in somewhat of a rhythm last week and have a huge run that we obviously didn't end up scoring," offensive coordinator Thomas Brown said. "It was great to be able to see him get out in space, make some guys miss, and kind of show his skill set."

Playing for pride, and tape

The Panthers are not going to the playoffs this season. But the Panthers are comprised of a lot of players who want to play in the NFL next season, also. So, every game is an opportunity to prove themselves capable here and elsewhere.

Obviously, we're in a very tough time and, and we get that," Tabor said. "This is the time of year where you are being evaluated not only by your own front office but 31 other front offices depending upon what your contract status is. So, how you play in these tough times I think it says a lot about you. It goes back to what we talked about: character versus compromise.

"And if you can play good football in circumstances that are difficult and have good tape, then that's where I think people say that's the type of player that we want to build our program around.
So, I know our record is not what we want it to be, but there is a lot at stake as you look at it. So that's important that we play well."

Tabor said he hadn't seen any signs of his team punching the clock, pointing to the fact they were a missed field goal by Eddy from making it a 14-9 game in the fourth quarter before things got away from them late. 

"I know what the final score was, but I think that you could also say that the final score wasn't indicative of how the game was played," Tabor said. "Down by five, you're still in it. You've gotten the game to the fourth quarter with an opportunity to win it even as things weren't going your way. So that says a lot about the guys, but to be honest with you, I expect them to play well.
You've got to be a pro, and that's hard right now, but in another way, it's not because that's your job."

Xavier Woods

Back in black

The Panthers will look good on Sunday, that's for sure. 

They're breaking out their alternate black helmets for the only time this season and were already planning to wear black jerseys (tune in to social media at 11:33 a.m. for the entire ensemble, as modeled by JJ Jansen).

The record has dampened the mood (such that it's not going to be dampened otherwise), but it's at least a cool look. 

Last year, they went black-on-black for a night game against the Falcons, and the visuals were stunning. The game went OK for them, too, a 25-15 win here.

View photos from the Panthers' practice on Thursday in Week 15.

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