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Going to Atlanta with first place on the line

221030 Panthers at Falcons-33

CHARLOTTE — Nobody has to tell Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks how important this game is.

If the Panthers beat the Falcons on the road Sunday, it would put them in a tie for first place in the NFC South, no matter how few style points the division is accumulating at the moment.

While it would only get them to a tie at 3-5, Wilks has been talking to his team a lot about being a part of the 7-8-1 NFC South champions in 2014. So that lesson has legs for this team after last week's win over the Buccaneers, and that's why Wilks has been showing his team the old footage to remind them of what's at stake.

Both of the Panthers' wins so far this year have come against divisional opponents.

"As we sit here and we play different opponents within our division, I think you go back, and you tap into the past and the success we had," Wilks said this week. "The competition. The rivals. Then you also build up to where we are right now. Showing these guys the success that they've had in the past. This division has always been a tough division. It's going to be a very hard-fought, tough game on Sunday. Those guys are going to come prepared and ready to play. We've been talking about being physical, because it's going to be that kind of game."

A win would also mark the first time the Panthers have been in or tied for first this late in the season since Week 13 of 2017 when they and the Saints had matching 8-3 records, and the Panthers would go on to make their last trip to the playoffs. Even when the Panthers got out to a 6-2 start in 2018 before Cam Newton's shoulder injury derailed that season, the Saints started 7-1, so the Panthers were always trailing that year.

The Panthers won their first three games of last season, but that lead only lasted until Week 4, when some key players were injured, and they quickly fell off the Buccaneers' pace.

But Wilks has seen something in this team, which is dealing with the back-to-back surprises of an in-season coaching change and trading running back Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers.

"I think it's a complete and total buy-in," Wilks said of what he's witnessed in the locker room. "We started talking about really the act of a champion. Act like a champion. That's accountability, commitment, and trust. You could see it in our performance and our practice. I think these guys are trusting one another. They enjoy playing with each other. They're having fun.

"Again, it was great for them to be able to see the fruits of their labor. Last week is last week. We got a tough task this week. Divisional opponent. We got to continue to progress and get ready to go play."

View arrival photos from Mercedes-Benz Stadium as the Panthers get ready to face the Falcons in an NFC South battle, presented by On Location Experiences.

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