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Five things to watch at Atlanta: Division lead on the line

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CHARLOTTE – One week ago, the Panthers had traded their best player to San Francisco and went into a meeting with Tampa Bay and Tom Brady carrying a 1-5 record.

Circumstances feel different now.

After a Week 7 win, Carolina heads to Atlanta (3-4) for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a chance at the NFC South lead.

Here are five things to watch in Week 8:

WALKER GOES AGAINST INJURED FALCONS SECONDARY

PJ Walker impressed his teammates and coaches on his way to earning the starting job at quarterback, even with a healthy Baker Mayfield backing him up.

Walker pushed the ball downfield in last week's win over Tampa Bay, connecting with wide receiver DJ Moore seven times for 69 yards and one touchdown in the offense's most efficient outing of the year. Walker has also led the Panthers to a 3-1 record as a starter.

Walker won't have to worry about Atlanta's talented cornerback AJ Terrell, who was ruled out for the Carolina game after sustaining a hamstring injury last week against the Bengals.

The Falcons could be short-handed across the secondary, as they'll also be without free safety Jaylinn Hawkins (concussion) and assigned a questionable status to defensive back Dee Alford (hamstring).

But Atlanta does have strength up front in pass rusher Grady Jarrett, who leads the team with 4.5 sacks, six tackles for loss, and 10 quarterback hits.

RUN GAME WITHOUT HUBBARD

Last week, the Panthers established a steady and balanced run game for the first time this season behind a one-two punch of D'Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard.

But this week, they'll be without Hubbard as he recovers from an ankle injury and is ruled out for the Atlanta game.

Interim coach Steve Wilks said he would stick by the committee approach with the running backs, which means the Panthers will likely deploy rookie Raheem Blackshear more this week. Blackshear tallied his first two career rushes in the NFL last week, which didn't accumulate any positive yardage, but he has flashed quickness as a kickoff returner. Wilks said practice-squader Spencer Brown had also gotten carries in practice this week, so he could be elevated for the Atlanta game.

The Falcons boast the league's fifth-best rushing defense, so the Panthers will be challenged to build upon last week's season-best performance.

DEFENSE PREPS FOR ATLANTA'S STRONG RUN GAME

The Falcons have the NFL's 27th-ranked total offense and 31st passing offense, but they're more efficient on the ground.

Atlanta is a run-heavy team without its star, as Cordarelle Patterson has been out since Week 5 with a knee injury. Still, the Falcons head into the Carolina matchup averaging 156.9 rush yards per game, good for the fourth-best in the league.

In Patterson's absence, Rookie Tyler Allgeier has picked up the bulk of the load. Allgeier averages 47.5 yards per game and put up his first touchdown last week.

Carolina's 21st-ranked rushing offense has improved throughout the year and held the Bucs' struggling run game to 46 yards last week. With the return of defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis (concussion) and Derrick Brown up front, the Panthers will have a tall task to handle.

WAITING FOR HORN'S RETURN

The Panthers are hoping for starting cornerback Jaycee Horn's return from a rib injury this week. Horn had been limited at practice on Wednesday and Thursday but was a full participant on Friday. He has missed the last two weeks.

Wilks said Friday he was confident Horn would play against the Falcons.

Horn's absence has left several snaps for those behind him, like Keith Taylor Jr. and Tae Hayes, who have stepped up in the past two weeks and remain ready should Horn be unable to go.

Cornerback Donte Jackson, who was limited with an ankle injury for Wednesday's practice, will play Sunday, and safety Juston Burris, stepping in for Jeremy Chinn while he remains on injured reserve with a hamstring, landed on Friday's injury report with a hip injury. He's questionable for the Falcons game.

MOVING UP IN THE NFC SOUTH

With the Buccaneers' loss to Baltimore on Thursday Night Football, the winner of Sunday's game between Carolina and Atlanta will clinch the top spot in the division.

The Panthers' two wins of their 2-5 record are against divisional opponents, winning over New Orleans and Tampa Bay and losing every other matchup this season.

A win over the Falcons would extend Carolina's undefeated streak in the division and start momentum before facing last year's Super Bowl runners-up in Cincinnati next week.

Clinching the lead in the division wouldn't hurt either, especially just three weeks into Wilks' tenure.

Carolina is 21-35 all-time against Atlanta dating all the way back to 1995.

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