SERIES HISTORY: 48th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 29-18. That includes a 31-24 home victory in September for the Falcons, who've won five of the last six meetings overall.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Atlanta offense will try to again establish the running game like it did last week against the Arizona Cardinals. The Falcons had success running against Carolina in the first meeting, going for 170 yards. That was the season high until they ran for 215 yards against Arizona. On defense, the Falcons will need to keep running back Christian McCaffrey under control with Taylor Heinicke starting in place of ailing quarterback Cam Newton for the Panthers.
The Panthers have to find a way to move the ball consistently when not counting on downfield throws. With Newton sidelined, then the Panthers won't want to put Heinicke in position to make huge downfield plays. It's clear that this is a tough spot for Heinicke, a third-year pro. Yet not much more can be expected from McCaffrey and it's time to wonder how he's handling the wear and tear - and it could be more extreme because Carolina is coming off a Monday night game.
The Panthers did a strong job defensively against New Orleans, yet that won't be easy to duplicate against an Atlanta team that frequently gives them trouble. One of the keys will be if safety Eric Reid can come up with consecutive solid games and if the pass rush can become a big enough disruption to create glitches in Atlanta's passing attack. Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones did not practice Thursday due to a hip injury and is questionable. The league leader with 1,511 receiving yards, Jones had five catches for 64 yards in a 31-24 win over Carolina in Week 2.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
--QUESTIONABLE: WR Julio Jones (hip, ribs)
--OUT: QB Cam Newton (right shoulder)
--QUESTIONABLE: DT Kawann Short (not injury related, calf)
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--Falcons DT Grady Jarrett vs. Panthers OL. Jarrett is a handful for any veteran, but the Panthers have had trouble on the offensive line. The Falcons had eight sacks last week and Jarrett had seven tackles and two sacks. Atlanta had only one sack against the Panthers in their first meeting. Jarrett had five tackles and hit the quarterback three times.
--Panthers CBs Donte Jackson and James Bradberry vs. Falcons QB Matt Ryan. Jackson is continuing to have a notable rookie season and his swagger tends to be a blessing in the defensive backfield. Bradberry has been picked on by Ryan in the past, but he's coming off a confidence-boosting game when he caused two turnovers against New Orleans, including his first interception of the season. Ryan threw two touchdown passes in the first meeting this season. He also was intercepted by Jackson.
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers LB Thomas Davis. He's playing with an agitated edge in recent games, perhaps sensing again that his career is winding down. He ended up with 12 tackles in the game against New Orleans, so he seems to be going strong late in the season. Davis played collegiately for Georgia, so these games against the Falcons are certainly a means to get him fired up.
FAST FACTS: FALCONS QB MATT RYAN passed for 231 yards with 2 TDs vs. 0 INTs for 98.3 rating & had rush TD last week. In his past 6 meetings, has completed 153 of 211 (72.5 pct.) for 1,988 yards (331.3 per game) with 12 TDs vs. 3 INTs for 114.8 rating. In 4 games vs. division this season, has 1,378 pass yards (344.5 per game) with 12 TDs vs. 2 INTs for 124.5 rating. ... RB TEVIN COLEMAN has career-high 971 scrimmage yards this season. Had career-high 145 rush yards & TD in Week 15. ... WR JULIO JONES had 6 catches for 82 yards & TD last week. Leads NFL with 1,511 rec. yards, his 3rd season with 1,500+ yards. Is 1 of 5 players in NFL history with 1,500+ rec. yards in at least 3 career seasons. ... WR CALVIN RIDLEY leads NFL rookies with 699 rec. yards in 2018. ... LB DEION JONES had 41-yard INT-TD last week, his 3rd career TD. Has 34 tackles (11.3 per game) & 3 PD in his past 3 vs. Car. ... DT GRADY JARRETT tied career-highs in tackles (7) & sacks (2) & had FF in Week 15. ... CB BRIAN POOLE had sack, INT & FR last week. ... RB CHRISTIAN McCAFFREY ranks 4th in league with 1,747 scrimmage yards & leads NFL RBs with 94 receptions. Had 120 scrimmage yards (67 rec., 53 rush) & 8 catches last week. Since Week 9, is only player with 1,000+ scrimmage yards (1,024) & 10+ TDs (10). ... WR D.J. MOORE (rookie) ranks 2nd among NFL rookies with 688 rec. yards this season. ... TE CHRIS MANHERTZ had 50-yard rec. TD in Week 15, his 1st career TD. ... LB LUKE KUECHLY ranks 2nd in NFL with 124 tackles & 3rd with 19 TFL. Led team with 13 tackles last week. Aims for his 3rd in row with 11+ tackles. ... CB JAMES BRADBERRY had FF & INT last week. ... CB CAPTAIN MUNNERLYN aims for his 3rd in row with sack. ... LB THOMAS DAVIS had season-high 12 tackles in Week 15. Has 10+ tackles in 2 of his past 3 vs. Atl.
PREDICTION: The Panthers have lost six in a row and now must turn to Heinicke, who has five career pass attempts. Not the ideal formula to halt a slide.
OUR PICK: Falcons, 23-20