Since the early November matchup with the Falcons, the Panthers' resume has grown a fair bit.
Contrast the two Saints matchups - one had immediate playoff implications, where Carolina could take the lead on the division and have a shot at homefield. The other one, two weeks later, saw the team take the lead on the division and homefield.
But way back, Carolina was a team climbing out of disarray against a team in disarray. 4-3 against 2-5, Carolina was a winning team, but they were on a three game win streak against the Vikings, Rams, and Bucs, not teams that were looked upon as much of anything. Even with the Falcons win at home, not a lot of teams took Carolina seriously and a 5-3 start looked just opportunistic. In their wake since, bigtime wins against SF and NE, a split with NO, and including that Falcons win, 7-1 since.
Atlanta, not as much. 2-6. On the other hand, it starts to trend up, 2-2 in the last month with a one point loss to Green Bay (minus Aaron Rodgers) and a ten point loss to San Francisco. I just don't think they're good enough overall to knock out Carolina.
The short answer on this game? Carolina's run O has sagged to "only" 11th, but Atlanta's run D is 31st. Carolina's run defense is 2nd, and Atlanta's run O is...31st. So Carolina can clearly control this on the ground, which shortens the game and makes Atlanta more pass-happy, where they look like an innoculated version of New Orleans.
The remaining details, however, remain interesting.
It's the same defense they faced last time - dipping from 22nd to 25th in pass defense, plain awful at 31st in yards per attempt against the run. Their DBs - Alford/Samuel/Moore/Decoud/McClain/Trufant - are there still, but there's not much backing them and they do get picked on. They rate 30th or worse against all WR (#1,2, 3+), via footballoutsiders.com, only doing well with 21st against the TE and 11th against backs.
It's again without their best LB, Sean Witherspoon. Osi Umenyiora remains their best pass rusher, with 7.5 sacks, but most of that's come in 3 games (TB, NYJ, Miami, 2.0 sacks apiece), so he's barely scratched the surface of past production otherwise. DT Corey Peters is out, leaving Corey Peters and Jonathan Babineaux underwhelming in the middle to protect Akeem Dent at MLB, and a somewhat surging Joplo Bartu in the run game (but not the pass).
It remains an uninteresting, uninspiring defense run as a 4-3 by 3-4 maven Mike Nolan, at least for this game but seemingly not longer than that. It's amazing when solid coaches fail miserably, and Nolan has for years now. Smith's intent on running an ill-fitting scheme for Nolan's background seems to have lost the lesson by Brian Billick that last gave Nolan success - as a position coach in the NFL for the first time, Smith was a LBs coach (who had succeeded Jack Del Rio, and when Del Rio left Carolina, took Smith as DC) under Nolan, who was stashed at WRs coach for a year ('01) so he could be kept for the Ravens to run the D when Marvin Lewis inevitably left. The Ravens, who had been a 4-3 team for Lewis, moved for Nolan and retooled. That Ravens defense spawned six head coaches, including Smith himself eventually, all mentioned above, plus Rex Ryan and his successor, Chuck Pagano. They have things figured out allright up there. When past connections left Nolan looking to be under Smith, Smith didn't shift, even as there's been minimal talent to be beyond replacement. It's as if Smith forgot where his career is owed.
This is a base offense sort of game. I'm expecting some 3 WR, enough to get the backups some playing time, but I would imagine Carolina being at home running a somewhat conservative 2 TE set and having lots of success with it. It will take nothing exceptional to beat Atlanta's defense. They might throw some special plays in there, and Mike Shula has definitely brought a few out the last few games, but you're also not going to do anything too nutty with Steve Smith already hurt. Last game, the leading receivers were Brandon LaFell and Greg Olsen, with plenty of distribution of the ball in a
Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis combined for 17 tackles last time; while the team struggled after Kuechly's INT until the half to stop Tony Gonzalez, they've shown aptitude against the TE overall. That's the likely focus again this week, since Roddy White is having the worst season of his career since becoming a fulltime starter. Harry Douglas has come back down to earth - he'd put up a few big games in White and Julio Jones' absence before the first Carolina game, but not so much now. They still lack Jones, and no one's replaced Douglas' third WR ability. Drew Davis and Darius Johnson remain 8th and 9th on the team in receiving.
It puts a strain on Matt Ryan, whose 16 INT is a career high. He's had 4 in the last three games. It's not like Ryan's doing anything terrible, he just doesn't have anyone making plays. Related to that, Jacquizz Rodgers is out for the game, taking away the team's modestly explosive 3rd down type back and leaving them with just big backs Steven Jackson and former FB Jason Snelling. Neither have more than 3.5 yards/carry in the run game, and both combined barely equal Rodgers' 52 receptions.
That's a key, however; the Falcons' screen game and dumpoffs. After all, about one out of every four completions goes to a back, on a team with a TE (Gonzalez obviously) leading them in receiving. It's not that they don't veer from a base offense, it's just that they have the backs, one good TE, and had relied so heavily on the two WR, and that's let them down this year with injuries and age.
This is a game Carolina could, and probably should, dominate. They should look to get up early enough, without giving up any major gameplan secrets for playoff opponents to pick on, while giving just enough carries to Deangelo Williams - they want to run the ball, but giving him 30 carries might not be wise, either. 3rd RB for the game is Kenjon Barner - he might break one, but so far on contact he's broken down.
Above all, hope for no injuries and a convincing win.