FAL­CONS (4-3) VS. PAN­THERS (5-3)

SUN­DAY, 1 P.M. ET, BANK OF AMER­ICA STA­DIUM, CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. uTV: FOX, DIRECTV 710

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - LEADING OFF - Brian Allee-Walsh

An­nounc­ers: Joe Buck, Troy Aik­man, Erin An­drews

About the Fal­cons: Af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing dense night fog at New Eng­land and tor­ren­tial day rain in the Week 8 game at New York against the Jets, At­lanta stays on the road for a third con­sec­u­tive week be­fore re­turn­ing home to the friendly in­door en­vi­ron­ment of Mercedes Benz Sta­dium in Week 10. “You never know in Carolina,” Fal­cons QB Matt Ryan said of Sun­day’s weather fore­cast (mid-70s, a stray shower). “It could get weird down there.” It would feel weirder if the Fal­cons had not ral­lied for a cru­cial 25-20 win against the J-E-T-S, a vic­tory that ended a three-game slide and per­haps saved their sea­son. The game marked the Fal­cons’ fourth con­sec­u­tive game against an AFC East foe and re­sulted in their only vic­tory in­side that di­vi­sion af­ter home losses to Buf­falo and Mi­ami and a road loss against the de­fend­ing Su­per Bowl cham­pion Pa­tri­ots. About the Pan­thers: At the mid­way point, Carolina’s de­fense ap­pears to be cham­pi­onship cal­iber but its sput­ter­ing of­fense re­mains a work in progress un­der QB Cam New­ton, who said he doesn’t want to be “Deb­bie Downer” and “a lot of teams wish they were 5-3.” Peren­nial Pro Bowl MLB Luke

Kuechly re­turned to the lineup af­ter miss­ing one game deal­ing with a con­cus­sion and go­ing through league pro­to­col. Kuechly had eight tack­les and one in­ter­cep­tion, key­ing a sti­fling Pan­thers de­fense that had two picks, one fum­ble re­cov­ery and three sacks and lim­ited the Buc­ca­neers to 279 to­tal yards. The Pan­thers held their sec­ond con­sec­u­tive foe with­out a TD, their fourth op­po­nent over­all this sea­son.

Matchup to watch: Fal­cons DT Grady

Jar­rett vs. Pan­thers C Tyler Larsen. Jar­rett prom­ises to be a load for Larsen, who has started six games and played the bulk of two oth­ers in place of in­jured starter C Ryan Kalil (neck). Jar­rett is the pro­to­typ­i­cal run stuffer and had four tack­les for losses against the Jets.

Player to watch: Pan­thers RB Chris­tian McCaffrey. The ver­sa­tile eighth over­all pick has made his mark mostly as a re­ceiver,

lead­ing all NFL run­ning backs with 49 catches for 378 yards and two TDs. He poses a matchup night­mare for lineback­ers and DBs alike, lin­ing up in the back­field, slot or on the perime­ter. Num­ber crunch­ing: 151. With one sack against Tampa Bay, Pan­thers DE Julius Pep­pers passed Chris Dole­man for fourth place on the NFL’s all-time list. Pep­pers has a teamhigh 7.5 sacks this sea­son. KEYS TO THE GAME

1. Off track: New­ton rushed for a teamhigh 44 yards against Tampa Bay, his third straight game as the Pan­thers’ lead­ing rusher. He also leads the team with three rush­ing TDs, two more than RB Jonathan Ste­wart.

2. Go fig­ure: The Pan­thers are sec­ond in the NFL in av­er­age time of pos­ses­sion (33:34) but have lit­tle to show for it on the score­board — they’re 23rd in points per game (18.5). They also rank near the bot­tom in red-zone of­fense (11 of 24, 46.3 per­cent), another in­di­ca­tion of of­fen­sive in­ef­fi­ciency.

3. Sad sacks: The Fal­cons’ pass rush is due for a break­out game. OLB Vic Beasley Jr. is on pace to get seven sacks, well be­low his NFL-lead­ing to­tal of 15.5 last sea­son, and their first-round draft pick, DE Takkarist McKin

ley, has only two sacks. New­ton has been sacked 22 times. 4. In­jury up­date: The sta­tus of four play­ers is in doubt. At­lanta: RB Devonta Free­man (right shoul­der) and McKin­ley (pos­si­ble con­cus­sion). Carolina: RG Trai Turner (knee), LB Thomas Davis (ribs).

Pan­thers’ Chris­tian McCaffrey JEREMY BREVARD, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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