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Week 14: Falcons-Panthers preview

The SportsXchange

Atlanta at Carolina

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Field, Charlotte - TV: FOX; DirecTV: 705

*TV announcers: Gus Johnson, Charles Davis, Kristina Pink

*Keys to the game: The Falcons are finally settling into a groove with the ground game. RB Jacquizz Rodgers has had more carries than Michael Turner in each of the past two games, and his ability to cut back and hit holes quickly suits the Falcons' offense well. Atlanta had five runs of 12-plus yards against New Orleans last week, the type of explosive plays the ground game has lacked most of the season. The main concern remains pressure up the middle, which is where the Panthers will attempt to attack and get in QB Matt Ryan's face. Atlanta CB Chris Owens is coming off a strong game, but Panthers QB Cam Newton will test his side of the field if Asante Samuel is sidelined by a shoulder injury. Carolina's offense has been at its best when the Panthers keep the game close and hammer away with their ground game, but RB DeAngelo Williams had just 12 carries last week while Jonathan Stewart continues to deal with a high ankle sprain.

*Matchup to watch - Falcons FS Thomas DeCoud and William Moore vs. Panthers TE Greg Olsen: DeCoud held his own in man coverage on the Saints' Jimmy Graham last week, and draws another difficult assignment in Olsen. DeCoud and Moore have combined for 10 of the Falcons' 24 takeaways this season that have resulted in 30 points.

*Player spotlight - Falcons FB Mike Cox: Re-signed Nov. 7, Cox played his "best game since he's been here" against the Saints, according to coach Mike Smith. He was an effective lead blocker and contributed as a receiver out of the backfield.

*Fast facts: The Falcons scored on their opening drive against the Saints for the eighth time this season. They lead the NFL with 44 points on their opening possessions. ... The Panthers have lost the opening coin toss in 12 consecutive games.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

If the Falcons' continue to find explosive plays on the ground to complement their vertical passing game, Atlanta is going to be extremely difficult to stop enough for the Panthers to keep pace.

*Our pick: Falcons 30-23
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