What to watch: Panthers vs. Falcons

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Everyone in the NFL has taken note of what Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has done as a rookie.

Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, the Atlanta Falcons will be the first team to see Newton first-hand for a second time.

It will be a first for Newton as well.

"It's kind of strange for me – this is the first opportunity in my life I've had to play the same team in the same season," said Newton, whose Panthers lost 31-17 at Atlanta in Week 6. "It gives you some type of edge I guess, but I wouldn't really know because it's going to be my first time. You can look back at the first game and learn a lot.

"But you can't think, 'Yeah, we've played them. We know what they're going to do.' Teams can change their tendencies each and every day, come up with new attacks on the fly. We have to be prepared for anything and come in there with clear minds, ready to play."

Here's a strange stat that could give Carolina fans added hope in the rematch.

From 2005-09, the Panthers lost their first matchup with an NFC South opponent on six occasions. On all six occasions, the Panthers won the rematch.

The run of success excludes last season, when Carolina went 0-6 against the NFC South, but it isn't merely a function of homefield advantage. On four of the six occasions, the Panthers played away from home in the successful rematch.

They will be at home Sunday, looking to win three in a row. Here are some keys the second time around.

TURNING OFF TURNER: In the teams' first meeting, Atlanta running back Michael Turner rushed for 139 yards – still a season high – and a pair of touchdowns.

"The big thing with him is that you can't allow him to get started because he's tough to bring down," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who got to know Turner when both were with the San Diego Chargers. "Plus they've got a good scheme, and they block it very well."

The Panthers rank 27th against the run, but they did hold Tampa Bay to 78 rushing yards last week - even with starting defensive tackles Sione Fua and Terrell McClain missing most of that game and now out for the season. The Panthers, however, were helped by the presence of a backup quarterback under center for the Buccaneers.

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PLAN (Q)B: The Falcons won't have a backup playing quarterback. Matt Ryan is capable of beating opponents single-handedly – if they tip their hand defensively too heavily in the direction of Turner.

Plus, he'll have rookie wide receiver Julio Jones in the mix along with Roddy White this time. Jones missed the first Panthers game with an injury.

"Their quarterback has the ability to throw the ball downfield," Rivera said. "We've got to be balanced on defense. We've got to be able to play well against them with seven in the box or eight in the box.

"We played them pretty well at times (in the first meeting), but we had a couple of situations where we didn't adjust properly to their formations, and they creased us. It's going to come down to how we handle certain situations."

TURNOVER TALE: Newton tossed three interceptions in the first game, including a tipped ball in the end zone that could have given Carolina a halftime lead and a late-game pick that sealed the outcome right after Atlanta had rallied to take the lead.

This may be an overly simplistic view of things, but it's still worth mentioning: The Panthers are 0-8 when Newton turns over the ball and 4-0 when he doesn't turn it over.

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WHO IS HURT THE MOST: Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes picked off the Newton pass to end the first half of the first meeting, but Grimes won't play Sunday because of a knee injury.

That could open the door for Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, who needs 24 receiving yards to become the 35th NFL player to reach 10,000. Grimes kept him relatively quiet in the first game (five catches, 66 yards).

Less obvious but no less important could be how the injury situation at left tackle pans out for both teams. Pro Bowler Jordan Gross is questionable for the Panthers with an ankle injury, and Falcons starter Will Svitek is questionable with a groin injury.

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PREGAME HAPPENINGS: American Idol winner and North Carolina native Scotty McCreery, who was named the top New Artist at the American Country Awards this week, will sing the national anthem.

McCreery's appearance at Bank of America Stadium is part of the culmination of a story-book year that has seen him rise from an unknown junior at Garner High School to one of the most popular and identifiable performers in the country. He recently learned that his debut album, Clear As Day, has been certified gold for sales of more than 500,000 units. The album, which has spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, contains the hit single "I Love You This Big," which has also been certified gold.

Also, fans can bring new, unwrapped toys to support the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. Representatives from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve will be stationed at gate beginning at 11 a.m. to collect the toys. Fans can also visit http://www.toysfortots.org/touchdown through Dec. 24 to sponsor a toy for a child.

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