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Carolina Panthers v Miami Dolphins

Source: Cliff Hawkins / Getty

The Panthers return to division play on Sunday, taking on the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium. Kick-off is set for 1:00 on WBT. Both teams are sitting at 5-7 on the year and fighting to stay in playoff contention. The Panthers are coming off their bye week and will have a new play-caller in Jeff Nixon following the firing of offensive coordinator Joe Brady. Will that perk up an offense that has been stagnant much of the season, ranking 29th in the league at 308 yards per game? “What I want to see from this week is a team that’s focused,” said coach Matt Rhule. “I just want to see guys go out there – coaching staff coach their best, players play their best – and play our best game on Sunday.”

The Falcons are having their own issues on offense, they’re managing just 18 points a contest, that’s 27th in the league. Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan is still around but he’s missing his top receiver in Calvin Ridley, who’s been on the non-football injury list since late October. Rookie tight end Kyle Pitts has stepped up with 49 catches, but the Falcons’ best offensive player has been veteran Cordarelle Patterson, a do-everything player who lines up all over the field. Patterson has picked up over 1,000 combined rushing and receiving yards and nine touchdowns, he’s also averaging 24 yards a kick return. “Cordarelle Patterson is one of my favorite players to watch in the National Football League,” said Rhule. “Excellent tailback, dynamic receiver, and he brings a lot of difficulties to the defense.”

The last time these teams met on Halloween, the Panthers ran the ball 47 times for 202 yards. They’ll no doubt try to run a lot again this time around, and this time they’ve got Cam Newton. The veteran quarterback has three rushing touchdowns since returning to Carolina, and he’s caught the attention of this Falcons defense. “We all know that Cam has been a productive player in the red area just because of his legs,” said safety Duron Harmon. “He’s big and he’s strong, and he’s going to be a challenge for us.”

Getting to the quarterback has also been a challenge for the Falcons, they’re dead last in the league with just 15 sacks. Linebackers Dante Fowler, Jr. and Steven Means are both back from IR, though, and inside backer Foye Oluokun is having a Pro Bowl-caliber year. He leads the Falcons and is second in the NFL with 135 tackles. All-Pro defensive tackle Grady Jarrett is one of the best in the game, and the secondary has been solid, led by Harmon and former Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell. “I mean, they’re a good defense,” said Panther running back Amir Abdullah. “They fly around, they have a lot of speed, very intense, great linebacker corps, great d-line. I think they have a very good defense.”

This is certainly a big game for both teams, who need a win to stay in the playoff conversation. And for the Panthers, coming off the bye they’re looking to get back in the win column and build some momentum headed into the final stretch of the regular season. And of course, this is a division game against one of their biggest rivals. “It’s going to be a dog fight,” said running back Chuba Hubbard. “I feel like, over the past few years, that’s kind of the culture this game has earned. So just ready for war.”

 by Sharon Thorsland