ROOM FOR ONE MORE?
PANTHERS DON’T WANT FALCONS IN PLAYOFFS
ATLANTA — The NFC South has a chance for bragging rights as the NFL’s strongest division with three playoff teams.
For the Carolina Panthers, two would be enough.
The Atlanta Falcons will try to earn a playoff spot, while the Panthers will be playing for the division title when the rivals meet today at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Carolina and New Orleans, each 11-4, have already secured playoff spots from the division but are competing for the South crown.
The Falcons (9-6) could make the playoffs even with a loss if Seattle loses to Arizona, though Atlanta’s players have mostly talked about earning their spot with a win. The Falcons are also motivated to make up for a 20-17 loss at Carolina last month and a mistake-filled defeat last week in New Orleans.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we’ve got an opportunity to play ourselves in,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “At the beginning of the year, that’s what you always want this time of the year, to be in the mix.”
The Panthers aren’t in a situation in which they are expected to rest key starters such as quarterback Cam Newton. Carolina can clinch the NFC South with a win and a loss or tie by New Orleans; it can clinch a first-round bye with a win, a Vikings loss and losses or ties by the Saints and Rams.
Carolina has won seven of its past eight games, and coach Ron Rivera wants to take a hot team into the playoffs.
“We’re approaching this game to win,” Rivera said. “… I want to keep the momentum going.”
Newton was a huge factor on the ground in the victory over the Falcons last month, rushing nine times for 86 yards and a touchdown. He has carried the ball 14 times each of the past two games, which offensive coordinator Mike Shula said is “probably a little more than we want to.”
“He’s still going to get his carries” Shula added, “but we have to monitor that and do a little better than we did.”
Newton, who is from the Atlanta area, isn’t the only Carolina player who gets a little extra amped up when he returns to his home state.
Two former Georgia Bulldogs, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson, are expected to play. Davis is returning from a one-game suspension for an illegal hit on Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams. Johnson returns after a four-game absence for violating the league’s policy on performance enhancers.
That won’t make first-year Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s job any easier.
Late this past week, he was still picking apart video of the loss at Carolina to figure out how to beat a defensive scheme that’s among the best at disguising coverages. Atlanta had some glaring mistakes as Ryan overthrew Julio Jones on a potential touchdown pass in the first half and Jones, a two-time All-Pro, dropped a would-be touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons also hurt themselves by failing to convert a fourth-and-1 and a thirdand-1 that led to 10 points for the Panthers — but Sarkisian would rather face those situations than the alternative.
“We know this is going to be a one-possession game this Sunday, so it’s important that we’re at our best in those moments,” Sarkisian said. “I think we’ve put in good prep to take advantage of those opportunities when we get them, because against this defense it would be nice to be in multiple short-yardage scenarios.
“You don’t want to be in the third-and-longs. That’s when the game can get hard on you.”
Ball security was a focus, too, after running back Devonta Freeman lost a fumble at the goal line against the Saints. It was his fourth fumble in the past three games, leading to extra work this week.
“What we talk about is the term high and tight as a ball carrier,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “… High and tight means we’re locking the ball down, and we’re going to keep the tip of the ball up tight, and we’re locking the ball down to the body and that elbow has to be locked. That’s why we know the issues with Free are correctable.”
Injuries led to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack (calf) and guards Andy Levitre (triceps) and Wes Schweitzer (groin) missing practice time this past week, and tight end Levine Toilolo (knee) could miss the game. Quinn wasn’t overly concerned.
“They’re a pretty tough group,” he said. “They know what’s at stake, and they’ll be ready to rock.”
On Friday, the Falcons waived cornerback Deji Olatoye and signed guard Jamil Douglas from their practice squad. Douglas started in six of 16 games played with Miami in 2015 and played in one game for the Dolphins in 2016.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we’ve got an opportunity to play ourselves in. At the beginning of the year, that’s what you always want this time of the year, to be in the mix.”
– FALCONS QUARTERBACK MATT RYAN
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan throws a pass Dec. 18 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The NFC South has a chance to make a claim to be the NFL’s strongest division with three playoff teams. For the Carolina Panthers, two would be enough. The Falcons will try to earn a playoff spot while the Panthers are playing for the division title when the rivals meet today in Atlanta.