|It’s been a rough week for Cam Newton, who has been criticized for his sideline demeanor and his less than super performance. (AP Images)|
Panthers at Falcons -- Week 4
Where: Georgia Dome (turf, indoors), Atlanta
When: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET (Fox)
Spread: Falcons by 7
Records: Panthers (Overall: 1-2, NFC South: 1-1); Falcons (Overall: 3-0, NFC South: 0-0)
Past results: Two most recent meetings -- Dec. 11, 2011: Falcons 31, Panthers 23; Oct. 16, 2011: Falcons 31, Panthers 17. Series record: Falcons lead 22-12.
What matters: The Falcons are one of three undefeated teams remaining in the NFL. They’ve scored 94 points, 11 more than any other NFC South team and second-most in the conference, but it’s the Atlanta defense that has the Falcons looking like a Super Bowl contender. Atlanta is among four teams to allow fewer than 50 points and leads the league in turnovers forced. The Panthers have been inconsistent on offense, scoring 35 points against the Saints and just 17 in the other two games combined. The Carolina defense has struggled in all three games.
Who matters: The quarterbacks. Atlanta’s Matt Ryan leads the league in passer rating and is tied for the league lead with eight touchdowns. He’s defeated Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers the past two weeks and now gets his shot at the reigning rookie of the year. Carolina’s Cam Newton has been inconsistent in his sophomore season and has started taking criticism from all sides. Teammate Steve Smith ripped him on the sideline of the loss against the Giants for his demeanor after getting pulled from the game late, and the Charlotte Observer implied that Newton was more Hello Kitty than Superman in a political cartoon.
Key matchups: Panthers DE Greg Hardy vs. Falcons RT Tyson Clabo. Atlanta has allowed the seventh-fewest sacks in the league, and it’s crucial for the Panthers to put pressure on Ryan. Charles Johnson has three quarterback pressures on the other side, and Dwan Edwards has 3.5 sacks coming up the middle. Hardy needs to push the pocket from the other side.
Injuries of note: LB Jon Beason has not practiced this week with knee and shoulder injuries. RB Jonathan Stewart is limited by a toe injury he suffered this season. For Atlanta, WR Julio Jones (hand), LB Mike Peterson (ribs) and DT Jonathan Babineaux (groin) have been limited in practice.
Inside stuff: Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan’s new scheme relies on pressuring the quarterback, which allows safeties to gamble more. It’s paid off with a league-high seven interceptions, including three by S Thomas DeCoud. With three weeks of the defense on tape, Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski should be able to test Nolan’s defense deep with the veteran Smith, and shallow with veteran TE Greg Olsen.
Connections: Panthers RB coach John Settle played for Atlanta from 1987 to 1990. Falcons secondary coach was a Carolina assistant in 2007 and 2008.
Stat you should know: Newton averages 263 passing yards the first time he faces a team and 201 the second time. He’s played the Buccaneers and Saints a third time and averaged 278 yards.
Record watch: Smith will play in his 155th game as a Panther, tying Muhsin Muhammad for second-most in team history. With 143 receiving yards, he’ll pass Stanley Morgan for 29th on the all-time NFL list with 10,717.
Bulletin board quote: “They’re like, ‘This is his first year, fresh-meat guy. We want to try him out.’ … I’m not nobody’s stepchild to be picked on, that’s for sure. When that time comes and it’s changed around, they’re going to understand and know that.” -- Panthers rookie CB Josh Norman on getting targeted by opposing quarterbacks.
Looking ahead: The Panthers return home to face the Seattle Seahawks and rookie QB Russell Wilson. Atlanta travels to Washington to face Redskins rookie QB Robert Griffin III.
Prediction: Falcons 28, Panthers 10