Panthers, Falcons play for NFC South title
ATLANTA (AP) — The Panthers-Falcons winner-take-all game for the NFC South title is a strange affair.
It’s highly unusual for two teams with losing records to play for a division title on the final weekend of the regular season. The winner of Sunday’s game between the Falcons (6-9) and Panthers (6-8-1) will become the NFL’s first playoff team with a losing record since Seattle took a 7-9 record to the postseason in 2010.
The Falcons have remained in contention by winning their first five games against NFC South opponents, including a 19-17 victory at Carolina last month.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who grew up in the Atlanta area, is hoping for a replay of the Panthers’ 21-20 win at the Georgia Dome in Week 17 last season. That win gave Carolina the NFC South title. Now the Panthers will be playing for a repeat.
Newton insisted his Atlanta homecoming provides no special motivation.
“It’s just like any other game,” Newton said. “Getting a win is the only thing that matters to me. The other fluff, that’s not important to me. I just want to get the win.”
The weak NFC South has prompted criticism of the NFL’s playoff format. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said the players are just trying to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Regardless of what the record is, we don’t worry about it,” Ryan said. “We don’t worry about what happened the last 15 games. All that matters is going forward, and I think guys have had that mindset and bought into that mindset.
“This is what you work so hard for in the offseason and during training camp, to have opportunities like this late in the year where everything is on the line. That’s fun. I think guys are going to enjoy the moment.”
Falcons coach Mike Smith’s future in Atlanta may be on the line. A win Sunday might not be enough to save his job. Atlanta is bound for its second straight losing record after five consecutive winning seasons under Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
The Panthers appear to have the advantage of better health. The Falcons lost a starting defensive back to injured reserve for the second straight week when safety William Moore was lost with a shoulder injury.
Carolina has a short injury list.
“It’s nice,” said Carolina coach Ron Rivera. “We’re very fortunate, getting healthy at the right time, and hopefully it pays dividends going forward.”
Falcons running back Steven Jackson left last week’s win at New Orleans with a quadriceps injury. He has missed practice this week, leaving his status in doubt.
Some things to watch as the Panthers and Falcons try to extend their seasons:
JULIO ROLLING: Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones leads the NFC with 100 catches and 1,535 yards receiving despite missing one game. When healthy, he has posted three straight games with at least 100 yards receiving.
STEWART RUNNING HOT: Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart has 437 yards rushing on 78 carries — a 5.6-yard average — in the four games since the bye week. That includes 122 yards on 24 carries against the Cleveland Browns last week, when he also caught the go-ahead 9-yard touchdown pass from Newton in a 17-13 win.
“He’s quiet, but when you see that look in his eye, he has a fire,” said offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
FALCONS DEFENSE IMPROVING: Atlanta’s defense played perhaps its best game of the season in last week’s 30-14 win over the Saints. The Falcons had four takeaways and a season-high five sacks. Even so, the defense still ranks last in the league against the pass and last in total yards allowed.
EXPECTING MORE BLITZ: Shula said the Panthers are expecting the Falcons to blitz more this time around because they had so much success harassing Drew Brees into mistakes. “I think they are going to go with what is hot so we have to be ready for that pressure,” he said.
HE’S BACK: The Falcons need no introductions to Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson, who has 10 sacks in 13 games against Atlanta — more than against any other team. Johnson needs 1 1-2 sacks to finish with nine or more for the fifth straight year.
AP Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina contributed to this report.
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