Some thoughts on Sunday’s matchup:
-- The 10-2 Falcons have to be salivating at the idea of facing 1-11 Carolina twice in the season’s final four weeks. They will play again in the Georgia Dome Jan.2, which will be the last game that coach John Fox and most or all of his staff will be employed by the Panthers.
-- The two teams really couldn’t be more opposite. Atlanta is tied with New England for the best record in the NFL. Carolina has the worst. The Falcons have won six straight. Carolina has lost six straight.
-- Atlanta isn’t blowing people out like, say, New England. The Falcons have won seven games in the fourth quarter or overtime this season. And they are only one game up on New Orleans (9-3) in the NFC South race, however, meaning the Falcons’ playoff position could be almost anywhere. Atlanta would be No.1 if the season ended today, but could drop all the way to No.5 if the Saints overtake them. So this game means a lot to Atlanta – and Jan. 2nd likely will, too.
-- The most damning statistic about quarterback Jimmy Clausen right now is that he’s thrown more touchdown passes to the other team (two) than to his team (one). Clausen is not throwing enormous numbers of interceptions – and he’s got to lead the league in throwing the ball away – but the ones he does throw seem extremely costly.
-- Watch Atlanta on third down Sunday to see an offense -- and a quarterback in Matt Ryan -- that knows what it’s doing on football’s most important snap. The Falcons lead the NFL in third-down conversions – they are successful 48.1 percent of the time. Carolina gets third down right 32.4 percent of the time (30th in the NFL)
-- I’m 9-3 picking Panther outcomes this season. This one would seem to be almost too easy, but Carolina actually plays the Falcons tough most of the time and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the game stay tight for a half. Bottom line, though: Falcons 24, Carolina 10.