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Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons: Sam Darnold struggling, Kyle Pitts already a superstar

The Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons might not be a game between playoff teams, but there is a lot to watch in this Sunday matchup.

The Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons game might not have any future playoff implications. Still, there is a lot to look forward to with these two teams — whether positive or negative. Sam Darnold is one of the more controversial quarterbacks in the league. Kyle Pitts is already a superstar. Also, Stephon Gilmore is slated to return from injury and play his first game for his new team.

Carolina Panthers vs. Atlanta Falcons storylines

Matt Rhule and Joe Brady made the call not to pursue one of the quarterbacks from the 2021 NFL Draft class. Instead, they traded for Darnold from the New York Jets. Now, just seven games into his first season with Carolina, we’re questioning his future with the team.

Could Sam Darnold be making his final start?

Darnold has not had a strong season. In fact, one could argue that only the rookies, Jared Goff, and Ben Roethlisberger, have been worse in 2021. After the easy first three games of the season, Darnold has struggled mightily.

In fact, after losing Christian McCaffrey, nobody in the NFL has had worse offensive results on a per-play basis than Darnold. He’s been objectively terrible, and it has people wondering if Brady really is a future offensive guru.

The thing is, P.J. Walker isn’t the long-term answer in Carolina either. Carolina needs Darnold to put together a few decent games so they can try to recoup at least some of what they lost in their offseason trade before he gets shut down for the season.

Kyle Pitts is already a superstar

Pitts has over 280 yards in the past two games. Last week against Miami, he made a big play late against Xavien Howard that helped Atlanta secure the victory.

Pitts is a superstar. He’s catching over 70% of his targets and is averaging 10.7 yards per target and 15.2 yards per reception. He’s an X receiver at 6-foot-6, 245 pounds, and is one of the most versatile weapons in the NFL already, given his sufficient blocking ability as well.

I was skeptical of Pitts’ immediate fit in Atlanta, given Arthur Smith’s usage of Jonnu Smith in the past. However, he’s playing 72.8% of his snaps either in the slot or out wide, making his designation as a tight end nothing other than a money-loser for Pitts when the time comes to sign an extension.

The only real question is how long it takes for him to become the best tight end in the NFL, supplanting the likes of Travis Kelce, George Kittle, and Darren Waller. Pitts is a different animal from them, yet he’s still the same beast. He’s effectively unguardable, given he has the wingspan of a wandering albatross and covers ground like a gazelle.

Stephon Gilmore’s return

The Panthers’ defense gives a lot of looks, but they love to crowd receivers at the line of scrimmage. That’s great news for a man-coverage cornerback like Gilmore. Hopefully, his health has improved enough to help this secondary.

However, locking him up, at least for another season, is imperative if they want to get the most from him. This team could compete in 2022 with a healthy Gilmore opposite of a hopefully healthy Jaycee Horn. That is if they can find some competent quarterback to play somewhere.

But a possible mentorship between him and Horn is the biggest reason I’d look to keep him around. Allowing Horn to learn from one of the best cornerbacks in the past decade could be huge for his development.

Carolina vs. Atlanta betting line and game prediction

The Falcons are currently 3-point favorites at home against the Panthers, a line we couldn’t have imagined just four weeks ago. If we simply look at the advanced analytics between both teams, neither the line nor the overall perception of this game makes sense.

Yet, if you look at the tape of both teams recently, it’s hard to imagine the Falcons don’t take the lead into the fourth quarter before they inevitably attempt to give the game away or “Falcon” it up.

Panthers vs. Falcons Prediction: Falcons 27, Panthers 24

Dalton Miller is the Lead NFL Analyst at Pro Football Network. You can read more of his work here and follow him @daltonbmiller on Twitter and Twitch

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