ROOM FOR ONE MORE?

PAN­THERS DON’T WANT FAL­CONS IN PLAY­OFFS

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NEWS -

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

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

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.

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