CHARLOTTE – Not that long ago, the Atlanta Falcons looked like a team capable of challenging the Carolina Panthers' perch atop the NFC South.
The Falcons, however, have now dropped five consecutive games and will arrive at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday as a team desperate for a victory to stay in the playoff hunt.
Does that mindset give them an advantage against a Panthers team that has already punched its playoff ticket?
"We're a desperate team too – desperate for a win each and every week," quarterback Cam Newton said. "We always try to just find a way to be 1-0 by the end of Sunday. For us, it's been that same outlook each and every week, and that's what has gotten us to this point.
"We haven't been looking back, nor have we been looking ahead. We've just had all our energy focused on a specific team, and this week that team is the Atlanta Falcons."
Newton means what he says, but even if it were just lip service and the Falcons were the hungrier team, then this particular opponent would be the perfect one to keep Newton's head in the game.
"I don't need anything to get me going besides the love of the game, but I do kind of get excited when we play Atlanta," said Newton, who grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta. "I had been watching since I first started playing the game at the age of seven. Sundays I would come home from church, and the Atlanta Falcons would be on."
Newton isn't alone in that regard.
"There are certain games for certain guys that have personal meanings," head coach Ron Rivera said. "For me it was anytime I was in California – the Rams, San Diego, San Francisco – anywhere close to home. And for a lot of these guys it's Atlanta. It's so close to us, and a lot of our guys have ties, so it's a big deal.
"For Charles (Johnson), Atlanta has always been a good game for him. And a couple of years for TD (Thomas Davis), it was important to him to play in both of the Atlanta games coming off the third (knee injury). When he got to play the second time, that was such a big deal."
Johnson and Davis are both Georgia natives who played at the University of Georgia.
"This is one of my favorite games," Davis said. "This is a great opportunity for my family back home because it's going to be televised at home.
"I still have a lot of family members that are pulling for the Falcons for whatever reason, but I love to be able to go back and talk trash when we're able to win the game."
Another motivating factor? If the Panthers win this game, they clinch one of the NFC's two playoff byes to go with the NFC South crown they've already secured.
"That would be huge, especially with our bye coming so early in the season," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We're going to fight with everything we have to try to attain that, to have that week off while everybody else beats each other up in the playoffs. That would be huge."