NFL Wire News

Week 17 Preview: Panthers at Falcons

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Carolina Panthers (6-8-1) at Atlanta Falcons (6-9)

Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET, at Georgia Dome, Atlanta — TV: CBS

*TV announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson

*Keys to the game: Win and you’re in, albeit as a seven-win team hosting what will, at worst, be a 11-win visitor in a first-round playoff game next week.

The Falcons are taking care of the ball, and QB Matt Ryan has only three interceptions in six home starts against the Panthers. The starting skill spots weren’t set as of mid-week with RB Steven Jackson sitting out Wednesday’s practice and WR Julio Jones (hip) likely to be a game-time call.

That could push the pendulum to the Panthers. QB Cam Newton (back) still isn’t fully healthy, but the Panthers’ mishmash blocking unit is jelling and RB Jonathan Stewart enters with an average of 117.9 rushing yards in his past three games.

If Jones does play, Atlanta can go to an aerial attack for which the Panthers have no real answer. WRs Roddy White and Jones had 14 catches for 133 yards in last month’s meeting, a 19-17 Atlanta win, but neither caught a pass of more than 19 yards.

*Matchup to watch — Panthers LB Luke Kuechly vs. Falcons running backs: Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman and Jackson are in the mix for carries. Kuechly, who had two passes defensed and 11 tackles in the first meeting, recorded 11 total tackles and an interception in the teams’ two games in 2013.

*Player spotlight — Falcons S Kemal Ishmael: Drafted with one of Atlanta’s three seventh-rounders, the rookie replaced former Pro Bowl S William Moore (injured reserve) and is more than holding up. Last week, he made the game-changing play against Saints TE Jimmy Graham, stripping the ball at the goal line. He intercepted Newton in the Week 11 game.

*Fast facts: Carolina won three of the past four meetings. … Ryan has four consecutive 300-yard games and owns four of the franchise’s five 4,000-yard passing seasons.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

Three total points decided the past two games between these closely matched division rivals. The game rests on the right foot of each team’s solid placekicker. Matt Bryant, who kicked four field goals in the Falcons’ win at Carolina, boots the Falcons into the NFC’s No. 4 seed.

*Our pick: Falcons 20-17


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