Falcons' high-octane offense sets sights on Panthers
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The roles are reversed for this year's late-season meeting between the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers.
The teams meet Saturday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium, where the Falcons have plenty at stake.
A year ago in the second-to-last game of the regular season, Atlanta delivered the first loss for Carolina, spoiling what had been a perfect season to date.
Now the Falcons (9-5) are clinging to first place in the NFC South, while the Panthers (6-8) are trying to avoid a last-place finish in the division.
"We've done some pretty good things," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said. "I think we're good enough to win every week. ... We've got good, competitive players. We've got guys who aren't scared of the moment."
Ryan said the Falcons have performed well against some of the top defenses and it's paying off late in the season. Atlanta leads the NFL with 33.5 points per game, ranking second with 412.9 yards of total offense.
"I think we're starting to play our best football," Ryan said. "To me, it's going to be a tough one (at Carolina). We're going to have to play our best."
That's probably not what the Panthers wanted to hear. They gave up 571 yards to the Falcons in the October meeting.
"They are still a dynamic football team," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "They're explosive on offense."
It will be the home finale in what has been a challenging season for the Panthers, who have an extra-short week given their Monday night victory at Washington.
"We have to refocus," Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "The Falcons are a different team than we just played on Monday night and we understand that. We've got to be ready for an extremely high-powered offense."
One of the big offensive outbursts for Atlanta came Oct. 2 in a 48-33 home victory against Carolina.
This time, the Panthers aren't likely to have Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has missed four games since suffering a concussion. Although he has been cleared from the concussion protocol, it appears unlikely he'll play again this season.
"I think their defense, in general, had done a good job in his absence," Ryan said.
Despite an NFL-leading 40 sacks for the Panthers, the defense has been torched by opponents passing for 274.8 yards per game.
This game might be more than a divisional rivalry because of the roster makeups.
"We've got a lot of guys from the Atlanta area that do love Atlanta," Rivera said. "That's understandable. They want to be able to beat their home team to have a little bit of bragging rights. I think that's part of it."
Quarterback Cam Newton is one of the Carolina players with deep Atlanta connections.
Last season, Newton was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. Now, Ryan's name ends up in those MVP conversations.
Atlanta coach Dan Quinn said Ryan already had been among the special group of quarterbacks, so to move higher on that list is a worthy accomplishment.
"For him to take it to another spot, it takes a lot of work," Quinn said.
Ryan said with the Falcons pursuing a playoff spot, there's no sense being distracted by MVP talk.
"I don't think about it all that much," he said. "It's really nice to be mentioned in that. For me, it's about the success of the team and trying to win games. I find a lot of enjoyment in that."
Falcons running back Devonta Freeman was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after scoring three touchdowns against San Francisco. He finished with 139 rushing yards on 20 carries.
"I think when you look at the guys that are around Matt right now, man, the way they've been running their offense," Davis said. "He has gotten comfortable in the new system and it's showing."
The Panthers, who are aiming for a three-game winning streak for the first time this season, continue to count on Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen as one of the centerpieces of their offense. He needs 8 receiving yards to become the first NFL tight end with three consecutive seasons of 1,000 yards, though he has missed practice time this week with a sore elbow.
"You'd better have awareness for where Greg is at," Quinn said.
Some of the Falcons' concerns might be eased with cornerback Jalen Collins available at practice this week.
Updated December 21, 2016