Panthers hope to stay hot, spoil Falcons playoff hopes
By CHARLES ODUM
Dec. 29, 2017
ATLANTA (AP) — The NFC South has a chance for bragging rights as the NFL's strongest division with three playoff teams.
For the Carolina Panthers, two would be enough.
The Atlanta Falcons will try to earn a playoff spot while the Panthers are playing for the division title when the rivals meet Sunday.
Carolina and New Orleans already have secured playoff spots from the division. The Panthers (11-4) would like to spoil Atlanta's season one year after it played in the Super Bowl.
"We don't want three teams from the NFC South in the playoffs," said Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn. "We want two. We gotta go down there and spoil their parade."
The Falcons (9-6) could make the playoffs with a loss Sunday if Seattle loses to Arizona. Atlanta's players have only talked about earning their spot with a win.
The Falcons also are motivated to make up for a 20-17 loss at Carolina last month and a mistake-filled loss at New Orleans last week.
"We've put ourselves in a position where we've got an opportunity to play ourselves in," Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. "At the beginning of the year, that's what you always want this time of the year, to be in the mix."
The Panthers already have a playoff spot but this won't be a situation where they will be expected to rest such key starters as quarterback Cam Newton. Carolina can clinch the NFC South with a win and a loss or tie by New Orleans. The Panthers can clinch a first-round bye with a win, a Vikings loss and losses or ties by the Saints and Rams.
Carolina has won seven of its past eight games, and coach Ron Rivera wants to take a hot team into the playoffs. That means he plans to use his starters.
"We're approaching this game to win," Rivera said. "... I want to keep the momentum going."
Here are some other things to watch when the Panthers and Falcons close the regular season:
NEWTON ON THE RUN: Newton has carried the ball 14 times in each of the past two games, which offensive coordinator Mike Shula said is "probably a little more than we want to."
"He's still going to get his carries, but we have to monitor that and do a little better than we did," Shula said.
Newton was a huge factor on the ground in the win over the Falcons last month, rushing nine times for 86 yards and a touchdown.
HIGH AND TIGHT: Falcons running back Devonta Freeman lost a fumble at the goal line against the Saints last week. It was his fourth fumble in the past three games, leading to extra work this week.
"What we talk about is the term high and tight as a ball carrier," said coach Dan Quinn. "... High and tight means we're locking the ball down and we're going to keep the tip of the ball up tight and we're locking the ball down to the body and that elbow has to be locked. That's why we know the issues with Free are correctable."
GEORGIA NATIVES: Newton, who is from the Atlanta area, isn't the only Carolina player who gets a little extra amped up when he returns to his home state.
Two former Georgia Bulldogs, Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis and defensive end Charles Johnson, are expected to play. Davis is returning from a one-game suspension for an illegal hit on Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams. Johnson returns following a four-game absence for violating the league's performance-enhancers policy.
HURTING LINE: The Falcons have injury concerns across their offensive line. Pro Bowl center Alex Mack (calf) and guards Andy Levitre (triceps) and Wes Schweitzer (groin) have missed practice time. Tight end Levine Toilolo (knee) could miss the game.
HORTON'S STRIP SACKS: Carolina backup defensive end Wes Horton has five strip-sacks since Week 15 of last season, including one last week against Tampa Bay. That ties him with Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue for the most in the league over that span, according to the Panthers website.
"It's definitely something that I go for," Horton said. "It's just training that muscle memory so that when you get to the quarterback you aren't just securing the tackle. You want to get that ball."
AP Sports Writer Sports Writer Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this story.