If the Carolina Panthers are ever going to get to where they compete regularly for the NFC South title, they are going to have to start owning Interstate 85 instead of paying the Falcons a toll every time they drive on it.
Although New Orleans won a Super Bowl with Drew Brees after the 2009 season, the Falcons have been the most consistent team in the division since head coach Mike Smith took over in 2008. This is Smith’s fifth season, and he is 54-22. That’s ridiculously good. Ron Rivera, by comparison, is 9-19.
The Falcons have also beaten Carolina five times in a row.
The Falcons (11-1) have a collection of great skill players and enough good players everywhere else that they are in every game and win most of them. The only real blot on their team’s resume is the lack of a Super Bowl win. And it might happen this year.
I thought Carolina (3-9) actually outplayed the Falcons back on Sept.30 in the Georgia Dome, but Atlanta made the plays at the end to win. That game was a huge part of each team’s season, sending them in far different directions.
-- Atlanta will be quite a test for Cam Newton, who hasn’t committed a turnover in any of the past three games and has actually raised his quarterback rating to slightly above the level that it was during his rookie year of 2011. The Falcons intercepted Brees five times last week.
-- Newton said something interesting this week when I asked him how the team will find motivation the rest of the season. “First, personally, nothing’s in stone right now,” Newton said. “We know what’s going on in this franchise, and we know that the head of the franchise [Panther owner Jerry Richardson] is in search of the formula to win. With people knowing that, you better start putting something successful on film, personally, or the hourglass will be cut short for a lot of people. Nothing’s safe -- not even myself.”
-- Matt Ryan threw the ball 40 times the first time the two teams played. Michael Turner – who almost always creams the Panthers – only had 13 carries. Turner gained 103 yards on those carries, and if I’m the Falcons, I’d feed it to him at least 20 times Sunday. That would also help Ryan stay off the ground – the Panthers sacked him seven times in September.
-- The Panthers have lost 13 straight coin tosses this season (12 for the opening kickoff, one in overtime). The odds of losing 14 straight coin tosses are 1 in 16,384.
-- After incorrectly picking the Panthers to beat Kansas City a week ago, I’m no better than a coin flip myself on their games, with a 6-6 record. My prediction for Sunday: Atlanta 24, Carolina 21.