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Atlanta Falcons v Carolina Panthers

by Sharon Thorsland

Christmas is on Monday but it sure feels like the Panthers got an early visit from Santa when they beat they picked up their second win of the season last week, beating the Falcons 9-7 in a driving rain storm. Now they’re looking to build on that when the Packers visit Bank of America stadium this Sunday. The Packers have lost two straight to fall to 6-8 on the season. But they’re just a game out of the last two NFC wild-card spots, so they’ll no doubt be treating today’s matchup as a must win situation.

This is a very different looking Packers team, as most of their long time offensive stars departed last off season, most notably two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is now a New York Jet. His former backup Jordan Love has taken over the offense and has put together a solid season, throwing for nearly 3400 yards and 25 touchdowns. He’s got a bunch of talented young receivers but his favorite targets are rookie Jayden Reed and second year player Romeo Doubs, with 54 and 52 catches respectively. They’ve each got nearly 600 yards receiving, and have combined for 13 touchdowns. Second year player Christian Watson is likely out again with a hamstring injury so look for rookie Dontayvion Wicks to be in the mix, he’s averaging nearly 16 yards a catch. Rookie tight end Tucker Kraft has also stepped up, he has two touchdowns. “Very explosive, elite group,” said Panther cornerback Donte Jackson. “These guys can make plays and they can definitely get up the field – all of them can run.”

Speaking of running, the Packers have a pair of excellent backs in Pro Bowler Aaron Jones and fourth year player A.J. Dillon, who leads the team with 574 yards and a touchdown. Neither is particularly healthy right now – Dillon is dealing with a broken thumb and the 5-9 Jones just returned from a knee injury last week – but he’s a threat on the ground and through the air. “Jones is dynamic with the ball in his hands, he’s just a play maker,” said Panther defensive tackle DeShawn Williams. “He’s catches screens, can run choice routes – he’s a hybrid.”

Williams and the Panthers defense has been playing some pretty elite football recently, they rank third in the NFL right now allowing just 291 yards per game. The Packers defense is at the other end of the spectrum, ranking in the lower third in just about every category, including 30th in the league in rushing defense at over 138 yards per game. They run a 3-4 scheme, with Pro Bowler Kenny Clark and Devonte Wyatt anchoring the defensive line – they’ve combined for 10.5 sacks. Veteran edge rusher Rashan Gary leads the team with nine sacks and has two forced fumbles. All-Pro Devondre Campbell leads the team in tackles and has a pick six. They’ll face a Panther rushing attack that has picked up steam over the past four games, averaging over 140 yards a contest.

The Packers secondary is dinged up with All-Po cornerback Jaire Alexander and starting safety Darnell Savage both out with injuries. Plus they traded away Pro Bowl cornerback Rasul Douglas to the Bills. So they’re starting a rookie at cornerback in Carrington Valentine along with backup Rudy Gay at safety. But the Packers are still pretty darn good against the pass, allowing just 211 yards a game, that’s 12th in the league, in spite of getting shredded by the Bucs last week to the tune of 381 passing yards.

“They play really well together and have a lot of depth,” said Panther receiver Adam Thielen. “They do a really good job of working together and playing complementary football.