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by Sharon Thorsland

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Carolina Panthers

Whoever would have thought that at 2-5 the Panthers would be in the running for first place in the NFC South? That’s exactly the case, though, as they travel down I-85 for a matchup with the Falcons Thanks to the Bucs loss to the Ravens on Thursday night, the division is up for grabs, and a win in Atlanta would put the Panthers in the drivers seat.

The Falcons are 3-4 on the season with a whole lot of new faces on the roster, most notably at quarterback. Franchise icon Matt Ryan was traded to the Colts after the team failed to land DeShaun Watson, and the Falcons brought in Marcus Mariota to lead the offense. The veteran is a dual threat who can hurt you with his arm and his feet – he’s thrown for 1179 yards with 7 touchdowns and four interceptions, and also picked up 237 yards and three more scores on the ground. “Real athletic quarterback,” said Panther cornerback Jaycee Horn.. “He can make the throws but he’s also good with his legs and extending plays.”

Star receiver Calvin Ridley is suspended this season for gambling and the Falcons passing game has struggled, they’re managing just 152 yards per game, that’s 31st in the NFL. The running game is having no such problems – even with star Cordarelle Patterson sidelined with a knee injury, the Falcons are averaging 157 yards per game on the ground, that’s 4th in the league. It’s a group effort with Mariota teaming with rookie Tyler Algeier, Caleb Huntley and Avery Williams, the trio has combined for 517 yards and three scores. They’ll face a Panthers defense that is improving against the run but still allows 102 yards per game.

The Falcons are pretty darn good against the run, they allow just 100 yards per game on the ground, that’s 5th in the NFL. All-Pro defensive tackle Grady Jarrett anchors the front line, he leads the team with 4.5 sacks. Star linebacker Deion Jones is in Cleveland now so the Falcons brought in former Titan Rashaan Evans, he leads the team in tackles. The secondary is dinged up with three starters out, including Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Heyward. As a result, the Falcons passing defense has been atrocious, they rank dead last in the league allowing over 306 yards per game through the air. Of course, the Panthers haven’t exactly been racking up the yards this season, they’re last in the league averaging just 272 yards a game. They had plenty of success running the ball last week though – D’onta Foreman and Chubba Hubbard combined for 173 yards on the ground.

These teams have split the last two season series, and the Panthers have won the last two matchups in Atlanta. They’d like to make it three in a row against their rival, and stay in contention for the division lead. They know it won’t be easy though. “It’s going to be a very hard, tough fought game on Sunday,” said coach Steve Wilks. “You know those guys are going to come prepared and ready to play. We’ve been talking about being physical because it’s going to be that kind of game.”