I have heard from many jubilant Panther fans this week celebrating the fact that the team will finally win the NFC South and host a home playoff game in January after a heart-pounding win over New Orleans a week ago.
That celebratory tone is understandable. But it's also premature.
The Panthers have to beat Atlanta in Atlanta first (the above picture shows how they must do it -- their swarming defense needs to be huge). The Falcons are 4-11 -- the mirror image of Carolina's 11-4 record -- but they have many of the same players that got the Falcons to the NFC championship game only one year ago.
As Panther offensive tackle Jordan Gross said: "The Atlanta game now is bigger than the New Orleans game was because it's got everything on the line. And playing the Falcons at Atlanta is never an easy game for us."
-- Gross understated that fact. The Panthers have lost five straight to Atlanta on the road. It's been so long that the last time Carolina has won in Atlanta was 2007.
-- One of the most memorable Panther wins in Atlanta came in 2006. Chris Weinke only threw the ball seven times and had an astoundingly low 32 passing yards, yet Carolina won, 10-3, because the Panthers controlled the ball for more than 41 minutes and DeAngelo Williams repeatedly ran out of the wildcat for first downs on third-and-short.
-- Now it's 2013. I wish the Panthers would drop the wildcat formation entirely from their offense. Every time they line up in it, I go ahead and write down a one-yard gain in my notebook before the play is run. And Williams is in his eighth season. But one thing hasn't changed -- the running back will be a key Sunday. A Panthers win would guarantee at least the No.2 NFC playoff seed, a first-round bye and a home playoff game either Jan.11 or 12.
-- Prediction time -- and time for a look back, courtesy of alert reader of John Wilkins of Denver, N.C. Wilkins writes: "In the 2013 Panthers Kickoff Preview dated Sept.7th, you predicted the Panthers to go 10-6 where Tom Sorensen predicted 8-8. Tom said in his prediction that if the Panthers go 11-5, he would buy golf shirts in mauve, taupe, and lavender.... I think Tom needs to get coordinating golf pants if we win next week to go 12-4."
Agreed. Tom's all-black Johnny Cash wardrobe is nothing if not consistent, but it could use an update. Here's hoping the pants he buys are lavender, too.
My pick: Carolina 24, Atlanta 13.
The Panthers led Atlanta only 17-10 entering the fourth quarter Nov.3 at Bank of America Stadium, but then scored 17 fourth-quarter points to win going away, 34-10. Here Cam Newton scores a TD vs. the Falcons -- Newton will play with an ankle that is not 100 percent Sunday.