The playoff fates of two teams hangs in the balance as the (9-6) Atlanta Falcons host the (11-4) Carolina Panthers at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in game 16 of the NFL season (Sunday @ 4:25 PM ET on FOX).
Tied atop the NFC South standings are the Panthers, who are in the midst of a three-game winning streak as well as having won seven of their last eight. Carolina opened the year just 4-3 prior to that but following a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have been one of the hottest teams in football. A win on Sunday would give the team a chance to win the NFC South depending on what happens with the New Orleans Saints, who are also 11-4 and who hold two victories and as such, the tiebreaker, over the Panthers.
Unlike the Panthers who have secured their spot in the playoffs regardless, it’s a must-win situation for the hometown Falcons. Atlanta opened the year with three straight wins before losing four of their next five. Starting with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys in mid-November, the Falcons have begun to turn things around however. Atlanta has won five of their last seven in that stretch. If the Falcons win on Sunday, they’ll lock up their wildcard spot and return to the postseason for the second year in a row. Atlanta can make the playoffs, even with a loss, but they would need the Seattle Seahawks to lose their week 16 game against the Arizona Cardinals as well.
The Falcons and Panthers met earlier this season in the beginning of November, where Carolina defeated their divisional opponents at home in a three-point game. Falcons’ QB Matt Ryan outplayed his counterpart in Cam Newton, throwing for 313 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, but it was Carolina’s ground game which made all the difference. The Panthers rushed for 201 yards including 86 from Newton himself to lead the team and a then-career high 66 for rookie back Christian McCaffrey. The Falcons managed just over a fourth of that number, running for 53 yards on the day.
Carolina vs Atlanta: The Battle on the Ground
As mentioned in this preview, the Panthers severely outrushed the Falcons the last time the two teams met. The 46 yards by lead back, Devonta Freeman, were his fourth fewest in any single game this season. The lack of production was likely due in part to the fact that Freeman and the rest of Atlanta’s rushers, found themselves faced against the league’s sixth ranked rushing defense.
That was the first meeting. On Sunday however, the match-up for the Falcons is even worse as the Panthers boast the NFL’s top-rated road rushing defense, allowing an average of just over 84 yards per game.
This has not been Freeman’s best season by any means. The former Pro Bowl back was among the best at his position last year but along with the rest of Atlanta’s offense, has seen his production fall off. Against the Panthers, the match-up is less than favorable, but regardless, the Falcons will need to get more out of Freeman, Tevin Coleman, and the rest of the rushers, if they hope to be able to take down the Panthers at home.
Whereas Atlanta’s offense has taken a step back, their divisional rivals, the Saints and the Panthers, are continuing to advance and boast among the league’s strongest offensive attacks when it comes to the running game.
Of the three teams, all of which are impressively in the top-10 in the NFL in total yards on the season, the Panthers rank the highest. Carolina is the fourth ranked rushing offense in the league, averaging 134.3 yards per game and scoring 15 rushing touchdowns.
The Panthers’ success this year has no doubt come due to their strong ground game especially since their passing offense has been mediocre at best this year. Carolina has passed for just over 2,900 yards in 15 games, which is the 27th worst mark of the 32 teams in the NFL. On average, the Panthers receive just 194 yards from their passing attack, per game.
As was witnessed in the first meeting between these two, the team with the better numbers on the ground was the one that emerged victorious. This very well could be the formula for success yet again, especially if Newton continues to excel with his legs as he has this season and throughout his career.
Our Preview’s Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons Stats, Betting Picks & Predictions
- Atlanta is an impressive 8-2 SU in their last 10 games against NFC South rivals and 8-4 in their last 12 at home.
- Carolina is 6-2 ATS in their last eight games and 7-2 in their last nine away from home.
- The total has hit the under in four of the last five Falcons games.
- The Panthers have played to the over in five of their last six games.
The season has come down to this as one game will be deciding the playoff fate of one team but the potential playoff seeding of two more. The NFC South has been a hotbed of action all year long so it is really only fitting that two of the division’s teams would be playing in the most meaningful week 17 game.
Offensively, the Falcons hold the edge when it comes to their passing game, as was witnessed in the first meeting between the two teams. On the ground however, the disparity was shown and it favors Carolina big-time. Defensively, both teams are pretty evenly matched, as both rank in the top-10 in total yards allowed and yards per game. The Panthers have a slight edge, ranking seventh in the NFL in those categories compared to Atlanta in 10th.
Emotions will be high as the Falcons look to earn their way back to the playoffs, to avenge the shocking Super Bowl loss they sustained last season at the hands of the New England Patriots. That road begins on Sunday. Looking at the picks and predictions for this NFL game, this preview sees it like this:
- Atlanta is favored by 3.5 points with all the top rated sportbooks, though the odds differ a bit. At home, expect them to cover that spread en route to locking up that sixth and final playoff seed. Our pick is to bet Falcons -3.5pts @ best odds of -105 with Bovada.
- As far as the total goes, the trends aren’t a great help here as the Panthers consistently play to the over and the Falcons to the under. That being said, the Mercedes Benz Stadium is pretty solid to the under so our betting prediction is to take under 45 points, best @ -110 with 5Dimes, Bovada or Intertops.
Marilee writes on NFL, MLB, NBA & tennis for USA Betting. Another area of her sporting journalistic expertise is pro wrestling. A native of Philadelphia and a big Eagles fan, she has been a sports writer for many major websites including Bleacher Report and Rant Sports. She started her journalistic career early, as sports editor for her college newspaper.