Game Scout: Falcons at Panthers

Derek Harper, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange


Atlanta Falcons (2-5) at Carolina Panthers (4-3)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C. - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Dick Stockton, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin
*Keys to the game: While the Falcons have struggled to put four quarters of good football together, the opening 15 minutes should be compelling. Carolina's defense has allowed only three first-quarter points all season while the Panthers have outscored their opponents 31-5. For all of its struggles winning games, Atlanta has outscored opponents 44-3 in the first quarter. Panthers QB Cam Newton rushed for 202 yards in the two meetings last season, prompting the Falcons to spend significant time over the offseason preparing for the read-option. One small problem, however: the Falcons are minus two key defensive players in Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Bierman. Carolina will rely on its stout defense and a power ground game to control the field position. Coordinator Mike Shula was criticized for conservative game plans earlier in the season, but is now being praised for smart play-calling and keeping Newton out of dangerous down-and-distance situations. The Falcons' offense is focused on improving the run-blocking for RB Steven Jackson. When Atlanta fell behind last week, QB Matt Ryan was under constant pressure and threw four interceptions.
*Matchup to watch - Falcons RT Lamar Holmes/Jeremy Trueblood vs. Panthers DE Charles Johnson: Johnson is recovering from a groin injury but is expected to play. He had 3.5 sacks in Atlanta last season, and the Falcons are hoping LT Sam Baker (knee) returns so Holmes can return to the right side.
*Player spotlight - Panthers RB Jonathan Stewart: Stewart is expected to make his season debut following offseason surgery on both ankles. He practiced in full pads this week for the first time in 2013.
*Fast facts: The Falcons have been outscored a combined 181-122 after the first quarter this season. ... The Panthers have outscored their opponents by a combined 58 points during their three-game winning streak.
WHO WILL WIN AND WHY
The Panthers' resurgence has been built on bullying the Vikings, Rams and Bucs, who are a combined 4-18. This isn't the week we find out how seriously to take Carolina, while it slides past another reeling opponent at home. We'll wait until next week in San Francisco.
*Our pick: Panthers 28-20