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Week 11 Preview: Falcons at Panthers

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Atlanta Falcons (3-6) at Carolina Panthers (3-6-1)

Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, at Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte – TV: FOC

*TV announcers: Thom Brennaman, David Diehl, Laura Okmin

*Keys to the game: Give the Falcons’ embattled coaching staff this much – it recognizes Atlanta’s biggest shortcomings and does what it can to minimize the damage.

Offensively, that meant using tight end Levine Toilolo as a blocker on all 28 running plays at Tampa Bay last week, according to Pro Football Focus, and bringing reserve offensive lineman Gabe Carimi in on 14 plays in the “jumbo” package. The goal? Minimize the potential damage behind a makeshift offensive line by avoiding long third downs at all costs. The Panthers allow 4.6 yards per carry, so expect more of the same in an effort to set up QB Matt Ryan to attack the league’s 23rd-ranked pass defense off play-action.

On defense, the Falcons are ranked last in the NFL, allowing an average of 280.8 passing yards per game. So last week the game plan was to rush the passer and allow plenty of short gains while avoiding backbreaking big completions and trying to lock down in the red zone. The big question in Carolina is whether QB Cam Newton is regressing or playing through injuries. Coach Ron Rivera insists Newton is fine, but the trademark athleticism simply isn’t there, Newton is making consistently poor decisions downfield and rarely has receivers running free. Carolina has to get its ground game (3.6 yards per carry) untracked to alleviate some of the pressure.

*Matchup to watch – Ryan vs. Panthers S Thomas DeCoud: DeCoud started 78 of 80 games over five seasons, but Atlanta let the former third-round pick go last offseason due to poor tackling. He’s not starting in Carolina, where the defense has taken a massive step back. That’s certainly not all the fault of DeCoud, who Ryan acknowledged knows the Falcons’ offense extremely well and that Atlanta will have to make some adjustments.

*Player spotlight – DE Kroy Biermann: Coach Mike Smith said Biermann is coming off his best game of the season at Tampa, where he recorded 1.5 sacks, three QB hits and was effective in setting the edge in run defense.

*Fast facts: Falcons WR Roddy White needs 74 yards receiving to eclipse the 10,000-yard mark for his career. … Half of Newtons eight INTs have come in the second quarter.

WHO WILL WIN AND WHY

If the season ended today, the Falcons would hold the No. 10 pick in the NFL Draft, followed by Carolina at No. 11. As it stands, both teams are one game behind division-leading New Orleans. Carolina is coming apart at the seems, but the Falcons are traditionally awful on the road – last week’s ugly win at Division II Tampa Bay notwithstanding.

*Our pick: Panthers 23-21

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