While the Atlanta Falcons wrapped up the NFC South title last week, they have their eyes set on a larger goal.
Hoping to inch closer to securing the conference's No. 1 seed, the visiting Falcons try for a sixth consecutive victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
While Atlanta (11-1) is usually led by an offense that ranks seventh in the league in scoring at 26.4 points, it was a superb defensive display that helped the team pull out a 23-13 win over New Orleans last Thursday. MVP candidate Matt Ryan completed 18 of 33 passes for a season-low 165 yards and touchdown, but the Falcons intercepted Drew Brees five times to lock up their second division crown in three seasons.
"We've won the division before, so it's not that big of a deal," wideout Roddy White said. "When coach said, 'Congratulations,' nobody was woo-wooing or nothing like that, which is good."
The Falcons, who sit 2 1/2 games ahead of San Francisco in the conference standings, could potentially clinch a first-round bye and also home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win Sunday coupled with a few unlikely scenarios.
"You have to be happy with where you're at right now, but ultimately it's all about finishing it," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "We set our goals high. That's just part of the step, so now it's on to the next part."
While it's hard to make a case against the Falcons right now, their recent postseason efforts are hard to overlook. Atlanta hasn't won a playoff game since 2004, going one-and-done in its last three appearances.
"We don't worry about it," said Ryan, who had four straight 300-yard games before last week. "We try not to think that far ahead. One of the things I've learned in my five years is that if you're worrying about what you're going to do in January in September, October, November and December, you're wasting your time.
"I've tried to keep that week-to-week focus, but at the same time, we've had some sour tastes in our mouths at the end of the last couple of seasons. So hopefully we'll have an opportunity to change that."
The Falcons have had their way with the Panthers (3-9) of late, scoring at least 30 points in winning each of the last five meetings. Ryan has 11 touchdowns to two interceptions for a 103.9 passer rating during the run, and Michael Turner is averaging 99.4 rushing yards with seven total touchdowns.
The first meeting of the season, though, came down to the wire. Atlanta drove 77 yards in five plays to set up Matt Bryant's 40-yard field-goal with five seconds remaining, lifting the Falcons to a 30-28 victory in Week 4.
The defeat still irritates Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who said Wednesday, "We owe them something and it is coming.''
Hardy also said the Panthers are a better team than Atlanta.
The loss at the Georgia Dome in September, was one of seven Carolina defeats by six points or less. The Panthers came up short again last Sunday, falling 27-21 at an emotional Kansas City team that played despite the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide a day earlier.
"You definitely feel for them. What they are going through is tragic," said tight end Greg Olsen, whose only reception went for a 47-yard score. "But we have a job to do. Our job is to come here and prepare to win. They wouldn't expect any less."
Cam Newton continued his impressive play with 232 passing yards and a season-high three touchdowns, and ran seven times for another 78 yards. Newton has eight total TDs - two rushing - and no interceptions over his last three games.
"His outlook on things, the way he perceives things and the way he's handled himself the last few weeks has been outstanding," coach Ron Rivera said. "He's played very well and given us chances to win. We have to take advantage of that."
Although Newton is playing well, the Panthers have allowed an average of 30.0 points in their last three losses. Things aren't about to get any easier after placing defensive end Antwan Applewhite and free safety Sherrod Martin on injured reserve Tuesday.
"It is about trying to win these football games and trending up. That's pretty much it," Rivera said. "We've got an opportunity to play Atlanta and later to play New Orleans - teams in our division - and those are opportunities to send messages and show what we can do.
"That's why we're playing, and we'll go out and play hard."
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