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The Last Word: Panthers at Falcons


Max Henson

Offensive key: Where to even begin here in the wake of the latest O-line injuries and Greg Olsen's re-fractured foot. My key is Superman. Cam Newton is going to need to pull out his cape and produce one of those heroic performances in his hometown. Like last week, his ability in the run game might be needed to provide a boost, and with Atlanta surely eager to test Carolina's pass protection, Cam will have to make some magic happen to extend plays and create explosive opportunities.

Defensive key: The run game is the engine of high-powered Atlanta's offense. Running back Devonta Freeman won't play, but Tevin Coleman is plenty capable. Carolina's front seven was terrific setting the edges and frustrating Ezekiel Elliott in the opener, and they'll need more of the same to make the Falcons one-dimensional.

Gutsy guess: Wide receiver Devin Funchess had a pretty quiet opener with three catches for 41 yards. He vowed to be better in Week 2. With Olsen out, Funchess will lead the team in receiving and reel in the first TD reception of the year.

Bryan Strickland

Offensive key: The Panthers talked all offseason about their increased speed on offense; now is the time to showcase it. The last time Carolina came home from Atlanta with a victory in hand was 2014, when wide receiver Philly Brown kept the Falcons off-guard with runs of 28 and 13 yards. Curtis Samuel and Damiere Byrd being out hurts the quantity of speed, but the quality is still there. Perhaps Torrey Smith can keep a secondary missing Keanu Neal honest, or maybe it's either rookie DJ Moore or Ian Thomas - or both - testing a linebacking corps missing Deion Jones.

Defensive key: There's no question how disruptive the Panthers' front seven can be, but how will the "back seven" perform? The Panthers have an impressive history when it comes to sacking not-fleet-of-foot quarterback Matt Ryan, but sacks haven't always equated with wins. In 2016, for example, when the Falcons won both meetings while piling up 81 points, Carolina sacked Ryan seven times. Last year, when the teams split and the Falcons totaled just 39 points, Ryan was sacked three times. So even if the defensive front is doing work, it will be up to the pass defense behind them to hold up when Ryan isn't surrounded.

Gutsy guess: Ryan is 5-2 in Atlanta against the Panthers in the Ron Rivera/Cam Newton era, with 12 touchdown passes versus five interceptions. Just once in seven meetings has he had more interceptions than touchdowns - two interceptions and no touchdowns in his last home loss to Carolina in 2014. Make that twice, with Ryan tossing two interceptions with just one touchdown Sunday. This time, the pass rush will have real consequences.

Bill Voth

Offensive key: The Falcons ranked 15th against the run last year. They gave up 113 rushing yards to the Eagles in Week 1. The Panthers need to run roughshod, and preferably, it won't be Cam Newton again leading the charge. Sure, let him do what he does, but give C.J. Anderson more opportunities to knife through the Falcons' now-depleted defense.

Defensive key: Hold up. Max and Bryan both went through their defensive keys without mentioning Julio Jones? Well, don't mind if I do. I'm not sure James Bradberry will shadow Jones when he's lined up in the slot, but those two will be across from each other plenty. And I think Carolina will take what Jones has averaged the three times Bradberry has finished a game against Atlanta: five receptions for 82.7 yards on average and no touchdowns.

Gutsy guess: Not only will DJ Moore make his first regular-season reception, he'll find himself in the end zone on the receiving end of a 43-yard touchdown pass.