Thursday Night Football Preview: First place Falcons seeking season sweep of Panthers

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Danny Karnik/AP/Shutterstock (13603751dd) Atlanta Falcons center Drew Dalman (67) and quarterback Marcus Mariota (1) line up during the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, in Atlanta. The Atlanta Falcons won 37-34 Panthers Falcons Football, Atlanta, United States – 30 Oct 2022

Thursday Night Football Preview: First place Falcons seeking season sweep of Panthers

Atlanta Falcons (4-5) at Carolina Panthers (2-7)

Time/TV: 7:15 p.m. CT/Prime Video

At first glance, a matchup between the 4-5 Atlanta Falcons and the 2-7 Carolina Panthers doesn’t create a lot of intrigue for the casual fan. Neither team entered the season with lofty expectations, and neither has a winning record as the season moves into its second half. One would be forgiven for not realizing the very real NFC Playoff implications tied to the game, as the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons host a Carolina Panthers team that can pull within a game of them (while holding the tiebreaker) with a win. Presumed favorites New Orleans and Tampa Bay have scuffled to a combined 7-11 record so far this season, leaving the door wide open for the upstart Falcons to sit tied for the division lead. 

The Falcons and Panthers also met less than two weeks ago at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, producing arguably the most entertaining NFL game thus far this season. That game saw a ridiculous seven lead changes, including a sequence near the end of regulation that left fans speechless. The Falcons eventually prevailed with a 37-34 win in overtime, moving into first place at a time when either team could have possibly done so. It feels unlikely that Atlanta and Carolina will create the same fireworks at Bank of America Stadium Thursday night. Still, it has a legitimate chance to be quite a compelling ballgame nonetheless. 

Carolina heads into Thursday night in a bit of a tailspin after losing to the Bengals in blowout fashion last week, a 42-21 game that wasn’t nearly as close as even the score made it appear. Quarterback PJ Walker, who had been named the starter in place of Baker Mayfield, exited the game early after completing only three passes for nine yards while being intercepted twice. His first-half performance left the Panthers in a 35-0 halftime hole, giving way to Baker Mayfield the rest of the way. Mayfield played relatively well, completing 14 of 20 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns, but the ship had long since sailed on Carolina having any chance of winning. The performance was evidently not enough to earn him back the starting job, as the Panthers have already announced PJ Walker will start again Thursday night. 

If the Panthers want to have any chance of getting back into the win column Thursday, they’ll need to start by doing a much better job stopping the run. Bengals’ running back Joe Mixon bludgeoned Carolina on the ground, finishing with 153 yards rushing and five total touchdowns on the afternoon. Cincinnati finished the game with 241 yards rushing overall but still ranks just 26th in the NFL in rush yards per game heading into this week. Atlanta currently ranks fourth in that area, a scary thought for a Panthers’ defense in desperate need of a change. 

Atlanta enters Thursday night of a frustrating home loss to the Chargers, a game the Falcons likely feel like they could have won. The Falcons seemingly play a close game every week, a trend they’d like to buck against a team like the lowly Panthers. As effective as the Falcons’ running game has been this season, they rank 30th in the NFL in passing yards per game with just over 150. Cincinnati’s top-tier passing offense undoubtedly opened up opportunities for Joe Mixon’s career day, a luxury Falcons’ running back Cordarrelle Patterson seems less likely to benefit from in this one. 

An Atlanta win would keep them at least tied for first in the NFC South, and a win paired with a Buccaneers loss would move them into sole possession of the top spot. Carolina, who still has three divisional games on their schedule, can insert themselves back into the thick of things with a home win under the lights.

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