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What to watch: Panthers at Falcons

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Once the clock starts ticking in Carolina's season finale at Atlanta on Sunday, it would be understandable if the Panthers started counting down the seconds, one by one.

The Panthers, however, vow to live in the moment instead of living in the past.

"I think a lot of guys are looking forward to it," running back Mike Goodson said. "It's our last time to get out there and mix it up. I think it's going to be a good, fun game."

It's also the last game that head coach John Fox - the only NFL coach the majority of the Panthers have ever played for – will coach for Carolina. The team announced Friday that the contracts of Fox and his staff won't be renewed after the season.

"It will be fun to go out there and give it our best, and if we win, send out Fox on a high note," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "This game is big. It means a lot to the Falcons and it means a lot to us. We haven't had a lot of games that had a lot of weight on them, but this one does."

In no way has the season gone the way the Panthers would have hoped. They have the worst record in the NFL (2-13) and have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention for more than a month.

The Falcons (12-3), by contrast, virtually clinched a playoff spot with their 31-10 victory at Carolina in Week 14. They still have work to do however, needing to beat the Panthers to wrap up the NFC South title, a first-round playoff bye and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs.

That is another reason why the Panthers will show up rather than check out.

"It would be big," Goodson said. "Hopefully we can go out with a win and get it started for next season."

RUN FIRST: Goodson is a pivotal player in another one of the game's keys.

The Panthers didn't show up in the first half of the teams' first meeting, netting 33 yards while falling behind 17-0. In the second half, however, Carolina's running game caught fire, ending the day with a season-high 212 yards on the ground.

Because of the poor first half, however, it added up to just the second loss in franchise history in which the Panthers rushed for more than 200 yards.

The Falcons certainly remember the second-half onslaught.

"Last time they did run wild on us, so it will be a challenge," Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "We will key in and focus on it and try to get the job done."

So will the Panthers - this time from the beginning of the game rather than the beginning of the second half.


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TAKE CARE: While the running game nearly dug Carolina out of a big hole three weeks ago against Atlanta, it also contributed to putting the Panthers in a hole.

On the game's first snap, Jonathan Stewart lost a fumble, setting up the Falcons to go just 29 yards to claim a 7-0 lead – a lead they never relinquished.

The Panthers have been better with the ball over the second half of the season. They turned it over 23 times over their first seven games but just 12 over the last eight games.

Against Atlanta, however, they need to be even better.


BEND, DON'T BREAK: With Matt Ryan at quarterback, Michael Turner at running back and Roddy White at wide receiver, the Falcons are more than equipped to make big plays.

The Panthers need to limit them to smaller plays.

Carolina could take a cue from New Orleans last week, when the Saints successfully kept Atlanta's big playmakers in front of them. The Panthers haven't been as stingy on defense as the Saints this season, but they haven't been bad, either.

Carolina was very successful with a bend-but-don't-break approach at New Orleans earlier in the season - Fox jokingly labeled it as "ball-control defense." They can do the same against Atlanta, assuming they don't give the Falcons offense a short field with turnovers and the like.


BIG FINISH: If the Panthers are to pull off a big upset to close the season, they need to come up with big plays – something that's been in short supply.

Running the ball, avoiding turnovers and limiting big strikes are all keys to success, but it's going to take more. It's going to take quarterback Jimmy Clausen connecting on a couple of big strikes down the field or a big kick return or interception return – or all of the above.

Now wouldn't that be a fun way to end a far-from-fun season?

"If we get a couple of plays to go our way," Goodson said, "that could make the difference."

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