Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers Prediction, Storylines: An elimination game in Charlotte

Cam Newton looks to bounce back from the worst game of his career when the Carolina Panthers host the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

The NFC South will very likely be a one-team division in the 2021 NFL playoffs. But the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers aren’t dead — yet. Both are 5-7 and technically just a game out of the seventh seed. But this is almost assuredly an elimination game. The Falcons’ odds of making the playoffs with a loss would drop to 2% per FiveThirtyEight. The Panthers’ chances would be less than half of that with an L.

Atlanta Falcons vs. Carolina Panthers storylines

The Panthers won the first 2021 meeting between these teams with power football. Carolina went for 203 yards on 47 carries in a 19-13 victory in Atlanta. Sunday marks the 54th meeting between these teams, with the Falcons holding a 33-20 series advantage. If you live in North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia, you’ll get this matchup on free TV. If not, head to a sports bar.

Cam Newton’s career at a crossroads

The feel-good story of Cam Newton’s return to Carolina has run its course. It’s now time for Newton to either play like Superman or hang up his cape for good.

Newton had the worst start of his remarkable career in a Week 12 loss to Miami, completing just 3 more passes than he had interceptions for a passer rating of 5.8. Not 58 — 5.8.

Newton has lost both of his 2021 starts, completing just 55.8% of his passes and averaging 5.6 yards per attempt. He’s 30th in expected points added per play and 38th in CPOE (completion percentage over expectation) since Week 10. That’s not nearly good enough for the Panthers to make a playoff run — and Newton wisely wants nothing to do with that conversation.

“Can we please stop mentioning that word?” Newton said this week. “I’m trying to get a win. Hell. I’m 0-2. All right? . . . . The important thing for me is, yeah, we know what the grand scheme of things is, but the reality is, like, I’m 0-2. . . .This ain’t no Cinderella [story], like I’m here to win football games. . . . I’m here to win. And when we win, everybody else gets promotions. And when you don’t, a lot of people are gonna get cut along the way. So that’s just the harsh reality of the league that we play in.”

Falcons are good against other bad teams

Records are important, but they also aren’t the best way to determine a team’s strength. Take, for instance, the Falcons, who enter Sunday with more wins than seven teams despite ranking 32nd in DVOA (Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric) and 28th in ELO.

Strength of victory explains the disconnect.

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The Falcons have beaten teams with a combined winning percentage of .328 — the worst in the league. They’re 0-5 against teams currently .500 or better — but 5-2 against teams with losing records. The Panthers have a losing record, so the Falcons have a shot.

“We understand the importance of this game. This is it,” Falcons head coach Arthur Smith said this week. “Nobody is happy to be 5-7, but you’re not out of it. So we have a huge game on Sunday.”

Our first look at Jeff Nixon’s offense

The Panthers’ decision to can Joe Brady with more than a month left in the season was a stunner. That’s not to say it was without justification. The Panthers rank 29th in total offense, 31st in yards per play (4.8), and 24th in scoring (19.7). Truth is, Carolina’s personnel isn’t good enough, particularly with Christian McCaffrey out for the season. So good luck to Jeff Nixon, who was promoted during the bye to fix what probably isn’t fixable.

“We have a lot of offense in our system,” Nixon said this week. “At this point, like I said, we’re just building on what we’ve done well this season and trying to correct the things we haven’t done so well. I think it’s impossible to put in a whole new offensive system in two to three days.”

Falcons vs. Panthers betting line and game prediction

  • Spread: Panthers -2.5 (Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook)
  • Moneyline: Titans -140, Jaguars +120
  • Total: 41.5

Falcons vs. Panthers Prediction: Panthers 27, Falcons 13

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