After what the Carolina Panthers knew would be a challenging stretch, their return to NFC South competition is going to bring its own obstacles.
That's because the Atlanta Falcons, who are fresh off a surprising result, are visiting for Sunday afternoon's game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
"They're coming off a big win," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "They've struggled this year. They've found their footing."
That came when Atlanta went on the road and stunned NFC South leader New Orleans 26-9 last week.
The Panthers (5-4) hold second place in the division, and they need to make the most of a rash of games against division opponents, two each against Atlanta and New Orleans.
"We've got seven games left. In those seven games, we play our divisional rivals (four times)," Rivera said. "We have the opportunity to control our own destiny as we go forward."
Now the Falcons (2-7) have a rare good vibe after snapping a six-game losing streak.
"It has been a while since we've had a lead," coach Dan Quinn said. "For us, it was the best example of all three phases staying connected. ... I was pleased to see the aggressiveness. I was pleased to see the toughness of the team."
With Cam Newton deemed out for the rest of the season, the Panthers have been able to turn more decisively to Kyle Allen at quarterback. He has made eight career starts, including the last seven games this year.
"He's young, let's not forget," Rivera said. "We're going to go through some growing pains. He's going to give us everything he can."
Rivera said Allen generally has done good things, though there might have been situations last week at Green Bay where he tried to do too much in a 24-16 defeat.
There is a growing comfort level and familiarity with Allen taking snaps.
"The biggest thing is his decision-making has started to speed up," Rivera said. "That's a benefit to the offense."
Quinn said it appears that Allen is capable of making all the throws and shows a willingness to put the ball in tough spots. Some of Allen's receiving targets have emerged with more production, so the Falcons are cognizant of DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel.
"They've really added speed," Quinn said. "These guys can make a ton of plays."
The Falcons aren't sure about the status of running back Devonta Freeman and tight end Austin Hooper because of injuries, with Quinn saying it would be a long shot for either to play. Brian Hill could fill in for Freeman.
"He has earned that respect and trust (of teammates)," Quinn said of Hill. "... If it goes to that, he's definitely ready."
Another option at running back could be Kenjon Barner -- whose career includes two stints with the Panthers -- though he has only two carries this season.
Atlanta will want to see what can be produced in the rushing attack because Carolina ranks 29th in the NFL by giving up 136.7 yards per game on the ground, and dead last with 5.17 yards per carry permitted. On the flip side, the Panthers have posted a league-high 36 sacks.
"Probably the biggest thing we're looking for is that everyone is where they need to be," Rivera said of stopping the running game.
The Panthers could have issues in the secondary, as their top three cornerbacks -- James Bradberry (groin), Donte Jackson (hip) and Ross Cockrell (quad) -- all sat out Wednesday's practice.
Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan missed Wednesday's practice as he continues to work to 100 percent after an ankle injury a few weeks ago, but he is expected to practice later in the week and play Sunday.
The Falcons have won the last three meetings and six out of seven against Carolina. This is Atlanta's second game of five in a row against NFC South opponents.
--Field Level Media