The Last Word: Panthers vs. Falcons

Bryan Strickland

Offensive key: Quarterback play is always a key in the NFL, and even more so when your franchise quarterback will be a spectator. Cam Newton will look on as Taylor Heinicke, who won the backup job after the Panthers claimed him off waivers in April, gets his first NFL start. Heinicke performed well in the preseason, learned Norv Turner's offensive system in previous seasons and lit it up during his college seasons. None of those things were on as big a stage as he'll ascend Sunday, but it doesn't seem like the moment will be too big for him. When head coach Ron Rivera said a "healthy Taylor" gives us the best chance to win, he meant it.

Defensive key: Thanks to Tevin Coleman finding plenty of space to the tune of 107 rushing yards in the teams' Week 2 meeting, the Falcons were balanced and effective in that 31-24 victory as Matt Ryan connected with eight different targets. The Panthers showed last week against the Saints how they can control an explosive passing game by first controlling the run game. The Falcons' 170 rushing yards against Carolina was a season high for an offense that ranked last in rushing before last week - when they inched ahead of the Cardinals by piling up 215 yards on the ground against them. Yet again this Sunday, it starts with run defense.

Gutsy guess: Newton tossed two or more touchdown passes in 11 consecutive games before being shut out the last two games. Here's to Heinicke starting a new streak with two touchdown passes - and a touchdown run.

Bill Voth

Offensive key: All eyes will be on Heinicke, but a quarterback's best friend is often a good run game. Despite what's gone wrong this season, the Panthers' rushing attack has been a bright spot, totaling the third-most yards in the league through Week 15. The Falcons, who rank 25th against the run, held the Cardinals to 60 yards last week. But in their previous five games, Atlanta allowed an average of 167.6. The Panthers need to help out Heinicke by racking up the rushing yards.

Defensive key: The Falcons scored touchdowns on all four of their trips inside the red zone in Week 2. That was part of a problem the Panthers had the first two months of the season, allowing opponents to find the end zone on 20 of their 24 red zone trips. Ironically, while the losses have piled up, the defense has gotten better inside the 20, holding its last five opponents to 10-for-18 inside the red zone. Still, the Panthers will have a much better shot to win Sunday if they can hold where they failed to in Atlanta.

Gutsy guess: Julius Peppers is 1.5 sacks from tying Kevin Greene (160.0) for third all-time and one forced fumble away from tying Robert Mathis (52) for the most since 2000. In what will likely be the final home game of his Hall of Fame career, Peppers will go out with a bang recording two sacks, including a strip sack of Matt Ryan in the third quarter.

Max Henson

Offensive key: When a backup quarterback steps into the huddle, the guys around him have to raise their level of play to help him succeed. Heinicke's pass-catchers have to do their part with some contested catches. Every throw won't be perfect, but a tough grab in a clutch situation can do wonders for a quarterback's confidence, especially one in his first career start. DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel have shown the ability to turn short passes into big gains, and the Panthers sure could use some of that on Sunday.

Defensive key: Success against Atlanta, if the run game is controlled like Bryan mentioned, typically involves a lot of pressure in Matt Ryan's face. Last year, when the Panthers beat the Falcons 20-17 in Week 9, Carolina had two sacks and eight quarterback hits. In Carolina's 31-24 loss to their division rivals in Week 2, they registered only two quarterback hits and Ryan wasn't sacked. So yeah, turn up the heat on Ryan and the rest will fall into place.

Gutsy guess: Christian McCaffrey needs 21 rushing yards to become the sixth Panther in history with a 1,000-yard rushing season. I'll say it takes him just two carries to reach the coveted milestone.

View the top photos from Panthers vs. Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez and second shooters Andrew Dye and Jamey Price.