Just getting into the playoffs would be an amazing achievement for the Carolina Panthers.
The Atlanta Falcons have their sights set on much bigger goals.
The surging Panthers try to continue their remarkable turnaround and possibly prevent the Falcons from clinching a first-round bye when the NFC South rivals meet on Saturday night.
Atlanta has replaced Carolina as NFC South champion and is close to locking up the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The Panthers, however, are currently playing as well as the Falcons—or any other team in the conference.
After winning just one of their first eight games, the defending NFC champions have won five straight, including a 20-7 victory over St. Louis on Sunday. If the season ended today, Carolina would gain the NFC’s final wild-card spot despite a 6-7 record.
“That’s really not reality,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “Unfortunately, the season didn’t end today, and we’ve got three games left, including a very tough game Saturday night at Atlanta, which just clinched the NFC South. That’s where all our focus is at this point.”
Atlanta, 5-11 a year ago, reached double-figure wins for only the fourth time in its 39-year history and clinched its third division title, and first since 1998 with a 35-10 victory over Oakland on Sunday.
A win over the Panthers, coupled with a Green Bay loss to Jacksonville, would ensure a first-round bye and guarantee at least one home game in the playoffs for the Falcons, who trail Philadelphia (12-1) for the best record in the NFC.
“This is exciting, but it’s just a step on the way to the big prize,” defensive lineman Travis Hall said after Sunday’s win. “What we really want to do as a team is get to the Super Bowl—and win.”
T.J. Duckett set a team record by rushing for four touchdowns and Michael Vick went 13-for-20 for 145 yards with no interceptions as Atlanta rebounded from an embarrassing 27-0 loss at Tampa Bay a week earlier.
The win helped first-year Falcons coach Jim Mora become just the ninth rookie coach since 1990 to lead his team to a division title.
“I haven’t been here very long, so it’s hard to grasp what it means,” Mora said. “But I could see the looks on their (the fans) faces. I could see they appreciated it.”
The Falcons, leading the NFL with 167 rushing yards per contest, had one of their best running games of the season with 217 yards. Warrick Dunn led the way with 103 yards on 25 carries, Duckett carried the ball 12 times for 65 yards and Vick ran twice for 31.
Duckett is expected to miss this game after undergoing surgery on his left knee Tuesday. The procedure repaired cartilage in his left knee and “went very well,” according to Mora.
“We don’t expect him to miss more than just this game,” Mora said.
The Falcons also lost fullback Justin Griffith for the season this week, but can rely on Vick and Dunn to carry a heavier load for one game while Duckett recovers. Vick leads the team with 821 rushing yards and Dunn is second with 788.
“They run the ball a lot,” said Raiders safety Ray Buchanan, who spent the last seven years with Atlanta. “They come out smash-mouthing, just trying to run you down.”
The Falcons face a far different Panthers squad than the one they beat 27-10 on Oct. 3. That loss started Carolina’s six-game slide.
The Panthers come off one of the best defensive performances in team history, getting a franchise-record six interceptions, three sacks, and a fumble recovery on a muffed punt against the Rams.
The Panthers have recovered nicely from the loss of wide receiver Steve Smith, defensive tackle Kris Jenkins and running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, but their last five wins have come against teams that are a combined 22-43.
Carolina’s true test will come against the Falcons, who have not lost at home to the Panthers since a 9-6 defeat on Sept. 7, 1997, and have won eight of the last nine meetings.
“I’m sure people on the outside will make a big deal out of it,” Fox said. “It’s another tough game for us, and it’s on the road. They’re probably filling their house now. It’ll be loud, and a hostile environment, and it’s going to be great challenge for us.”