Hi! Hope your holidays are going well and you are ready for a big Sunday.
Think you have never seen anything like this before for the Carolina Panthers, with a "win-and-you're-in" scenario dominating the storyline for the final week of the season?
Well, in fact you have -- but maybe you were younger or just not paying that much attention.
On the last day of the 2005 season, the Panthers were 10-5 but still needed to win to secure a playoff spot. Yes, it was a very different sort of season. They blew into Atlanta and whipped the Falcons, 44-11, giving them momentum for two straight playoff road wins as well (at the New York Giants and at Chicago) before a loss to Seattle in the NFC championship game.
On the other hand, on the last day of the 2004 season, the Panthers had rebounded from a horrid 1-7 start the year after their lone Super Bowl appearance to get to 7-8. They needed one more win to get in, against New Orleans at home. Then the Panthers stunk it up and lost 21-18.
So this has happened before, albeit not under these circumstances, where the winner of a game between two losing teams will win the NFC South.
-- If it comes down to a field goal, I would rely on Atlanta's Matt Bryant over Carolina's Graham Gano. Bryant is a machine. He hasn't missed from under 50 yards all season, and he's even hit seven of 10 from 50-plus. Gano, on the other hand, has had a couple of crucial misses this season, including two in the Falcons' 19-17 win over Carolina in November.
-- Best matchup Sunday? It has to be Atlanta Pro Bowl receiver Julio Jones, who has three straight 100-yard receiving games, against Carolina cornerback Josh Norman. Norman says Jones is a "Manimal," but Norman has been very good the past month and is the best chance the Panthers have at slowing down Jones.
-- Whichever team wins will almost certainly play Arizona in a home playoff game next Sunday. I can't think of a more favorable matchup, given the Cardinals' serious quarterback issues.
-- Prediction time. I am 9-5-1 picking the Panthers' outcome this season and have gotten it right the past two weeks.
Matt Ryan has been quietly very good this season -- 28 TDs and only 12 interceptions -- and the Panthers' ability or inability to rattle Ryan will determine the way this game goes. As for the Panthers, they need to run the ball well, which I think they will do. Cam Newton's ability to run in the red zone (see above picture for a previous score he had vs. Atlanta) will be key. My pick: Carolina 24, Atlanta 20.