Game Scout: Panthers at Falcons

Derek Harper, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

Carolina Panthers (11-4) at Atlanta Falcons (4-11)
Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Georgia Dome, Atlanta - TV: FOX
*TV announcers: Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Erin Andrews
*Keys to the game: Say this for the Falcons, they haven't quit on embattled coach Mike Smith. They fought the 49ers tooth and nail on the road last week, and have little interest in passing the NFC South torch to Carolina on their home field. The Panthers smoked the Falcons 34-10 in Charlotte in Week 9 on the strength of four sacks of QB Matt Ryan and an interception return for a touchdown. Atlanta knows what's coming: an extremely run-heavy attack from Carolina directed at the league's 31st-ranked run defense. The Falcons can play eight defenders in the box, especially without injured WR Steve Smith to worry about, but it won't do much good if the injury-plagued defense doesn't fit its gaps and secure tackles. The Panthers' stout front seven should be able to lock up RB Steven Jackson and come after Ryan. Carolina's main weakness is in the secondary, and Ryan is still doing damage with the trio of TE Tony Gonzalez and WRs Roddy White and Harry Douglas.
*Matchup to watch - Panthers MLB Luke Kuechly vs. Gonzalez: If Kuechly has a hole in his game, it's in red zone coverage, where he has been routinely targeted this season. Gonzalez closes out his Hall of Fame career at home, and has a team-high 79 catches and eight touchdowns.
*Player spotlight - Falcons S William Moore: Atlanta gave up 6.6 yards per carry in San Francisco, only to have Moore proclaim, "We did an excellent job on the run." He also over-ran Kendall Hunter's game-high 45-yard run near the line of scrimmage.
*Fast facts: Panthers CB Captain Munnerlyn has three sacks this season after totaling two through his first 47 career games. ... White has 17 catches for 286 yards and three touchdowns in the past two meetings.
A division title and first-round bye is on the line for the Panthers, who again pound away at an overmatched Atlanta defense while leaning on their own stellar front seven to steadily pull away comfortably.
*Our pick: Panthers 28-20

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