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Numbers game: Some statistical perspective on Panthers-Falcons

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CHARLOTTE – Safety Da’Norris Searcy sounded like a hype man, but in this case, do believe the hype.

“We know they’re going to be fired up. Well, we’re going to be fired up,” Searcy said of Sunday’s game at the NFC South rival Falcons. “It’s their home opener, and they’re coming off an opening loss so they’re looking to bounce back. We’re coming off an opening win, and we want to keep the momentum going.

“It’s going to be a clash of some pretty big heavyweights – battle of the south. Divisional opponent. It’s going to be good.”

And, it’s going to be big. Searcy and head coach Ron Rivera were among Panthers to throw out the “division games count twice in the standings” saying. That’s not literally the case of course, but it’s not without merit.

This isn’t exactly a news flash, but teams that do well over the course of their six division games tend to do well in general. To what extent? Since 2007, the NFC South champion owned or shared the best record in division games every year save one. The exception was in a year of exceptions: In 2014, when the Panthers won the division with a 7-8-1 mark, they were 4-2 in division games, while the 6-10 Falcons went 5-1 in the division. Still division results were important that season, with Carolina beating each NFC South team once over the final four games including a victory in Atlanta the last week that decided the division.

“If you want to win the division, you’ve got to be successful in the division. That’s the truth of the matter,” Rivera said. “Whether we’re here or away, it’s an important game.”

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Another stat you’ll hear mentioned often over the next couple of days is the value of starting 2-0 versus the curse of starting 0-2. The Panthers are aiming for the former; the Falcons are aiming to avoid the latter.

Since 2007, about 57 percent of teams to start 2-0 have gone on to make the playoffs (52 of 91). Over the same time frame, just 11 percent of 0-2 teams have reached the postseason (10 of 91).

(For the record, it’s harder for 2-0 teams to make the playoffs than it is “easier” for 0-2 teams to miss the playoffs because there’s only room for 37.5 percent of teams in the current postseason format. Nearly two-thirds of the league won’t play into January).

The Panthers have started 2-0 seven times in franchise history; six times, they ended up in the playoffs. But…they’re also one of the 10 NFL teams to make the playoffs since 2007 after starting 0-2, overcoming a slow start in 2013. Last year, the NFC South rival Saints were the lone 0-2 team to make the playoffs, a run jumpstarted by a Week 3 victory in Charlotte over the 2-0 Panthers.

The 0-2 hole is obviously difficult because it represents one-eighth of the schedule in a league when just three out of eight teams make the playoffs, but there’s more to it. This may seem obvious, too, but many of the teams to start 0-2, well, aren’t good football teams. If the Falcons lose to the Panthers after opening with a loss at the reigning Super Bowl champions, that doesn’t mean they’re a bad team. In fact, they’d be among the top candidates to beat the odds.

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There’s been a lot made – and understandably so – about the Falcons’ struggles in the red zone, a problem area during the 2017 regular season magnified by narrow losses to the Eagles in the playoffs and then in last week’s opener that ended with Atlanta coming up just short of the goal line.

But as far as the Panthers’ prospects against Atlanta are concerned, only what happens Sunday matters.

“I don’t see them struggling in the red zone. They will always get the highest benefit of the doubt from me,” defensive coordinator Eric Washington said. “Whatever they did or didn’t do, we’ve got to make sure that first of all we’re limiting their opportunities.

“As far as their execution is concerned, I’ll let them worry about that. But we know that when they get in that part of the field, they’re capable of producing as many points as anybody.”

The Falcons ranked 23rd in the NFL in red zone touchdown percentage last season, but they still ranked a respectable 15th in the NFL in scoring. How did they do it? Just five teams reached the red zone more often than the Falcons. Also, Atlanta scored seven offensive touchdowns while merely passing through the red zone (touchdowns of more than 20 yards).

In last year’s two matchups with the Falcons, the team with the lowest red zone touchdown percentage won. How so? Well, field goals matter, so the Falcons were just 1-for-5 scoring touchdowns in the red zone in the regular season finale but kicked five field goals in a 22-10 victory. The Panthers were 2-for-4 in the red zone in a 20-17 victory in Week 9, kicking field goals on both “failed” drives to spell the difference.

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