The Atlanta Falcons bring the NFL’s top-ranked rushing offense to Bank of America Stadium to face one of the league’s best run defenses as the Carolina Panthers look to maintain their hold on first place in a battle of NFC South Division leaders.
The Panthers boast the NFL’s fifth-ranked defense and are giving up just 82.2 yards per game on the ground, third-best in the league.
These teams meet again at Atlanta in their regular-season finale Jan. 1, and both face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before then as the NFL’s tightest division race enters the final stretch.
“Our division is probably one of the toughest in the league, so we have a long way to go before we even think about the playoffs,” Dunn said.
Both teams are coming off road wins last week.
Vick threw two touchdown passes to tight end Alge Crumpler and Duckett ran for another score as the Falcons rolled up 256 rushing yards and won 27-7 at Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.
The Falcons have won four of five road games this season, and four in a row since losing at Seattle 21-18 on Sept. 18 in Week 2.
“We’re road warriors,” said Crumpler, who had a season-high 104 yards on seven receptions against the Lions.
Three of Atlanta’s four losses this season have come by three points.
Carolina got back on track last week after having its six-game winning streak snapped, scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 2:16 remaining and holding on for a 13-9 victory at Buffalo.
The Panthers limited the Bills to 216 yards of offense and 53 rushing yards.
“We got them into some third-and-long situations,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “That always helps. Playing good run defense on first and second down allowed us to do that.”
Carolina hasn’t lost at home since a season-opening 23-20 defeat to New Orleans on Sept. 11, which came on John Carney’s 47-yard field goal with 3 seconds left.
Recent history, though, suggests Atlanta has the advantage Sunday. The Falcons have won 12 of the last 14 meetings with Carolina, including the past three. The Panthers haven’t beaten the Falcons since a 23-3 home win on Sept. 28, 2003.
“The mood is we have the Atlanta Falcons next,” said Carolina tight end Michael Gaines, who caught the winning TD last week. “That’s what the mood is … to come back home and play the Falcons, we’re ready.”
Getting off to a fast start could be the key for both clubs, as the Panthers are 7-0 and the Falcons 6-0 when scoring first.
Carolina’s win streak was stopped in a 13-3 loss to Chicago on Nov. 20, and last week’s win left the Panthers 1-1 in their only stretch of back-to-back road games this season. Both of Carolina’s critical divisions matchups come at home, with Tampa Bay coming to town next week.
“You get your character tested and I thought our guys came through,” Fox said after last week’s win. “There was a lot of pressure and you have the crowd screaming at you and making a lot of noise. You have to reach down for something and I thought our team did that.”