ATLANTA >> The Atlanta Falcons are rebuilding.
The Carolina Panthers are in an enormous transition.
Do not fear.
In the pathetic NFC South, these two scuffle groups are nonetheless contenders.
Every group in the NFL’s weakest division has a dropping file. The Falcons (3-4) moved as much as first place when Tampa Bay (3-5) misplaced to Baltimore Thursday night time whereas the Panthers (2-5) and New Orleans are only a recreation behind.
“We understand it’s a division game,” Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota mentioned of Sunday’s residence recreation in opposition to the Panthers. “You have to create something like a head start in your department, you want to create separation. It starts here.”
Atlanta knew it may very well be a protracted season after buying and selling quarterback Matt Ryan and struggling an enormous wage cap hit.
But the Falcons in all probability did not count on the remainder of the division to journey alongside.
“Honestly, all I’m trying to think about is winning this game,” Mariota mentioned. “I try not to make it more than it is.”
The Panthers are additionally hanging round even after firing coach Matt Rhule and Trading Star, who’s bringing Christian McCaffrey again to the 49ers for draft picks.
Carolina has had its finest efficiency of the season, a 21-3 loss to Tom Brady and the struggling Buccaneers.
“We knew what (McCaffrey) meant to this team,” mentioned quarterback PJ Walker. “We knew what he was bringing to the table, but we still had to go out and execute and go out and play at a high level.”
RUN WITH FOCUS
Panthers interim coach Steve Wilks took over a group that was backside on offense two weeks in the past and made it his mission to search out an id.
That meant letting the ball go.
D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard mixed for 181 yards on the ground in opposition to the Bucs. Hubbard was dominated out for Sunday’s recreation with an ankle damage, however the Panthers nonetheless intend to run the ball in opposition to the Falcons in preparation for the play-action move.
“That’s the mindset I wanted to create up front — just workers, work hard, and push the pile,” Wilks mentioned.
The Falcons know precisely what he is speaking about.
With few threats in the passing recreation, coach Arthur Smith has steadfastly refused to open issues up for quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Atlanta has thrown simply 27 passes over the previous two weeks, as an alternative counting on a hard-hitting operating recreation led by rookie Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley.
WHERE IS PITTS?
The lack of a passing play has made All-Pro tight finish Kyle Pitts an afterthought on the Falcons offense.
The sophomore has simply 16 catches for 178 yards and one landing, a far cry from the tempo he produced in his stellar rookie season.
Last week, Pitts was held to a season-low 9 yards in three receptions in a 35-17 loss in Cincinnati.
With a lot emphasis on the operating recreation, the Falcons solely have three gamers with double-digit receptions this season.
This yr’s No. 1 choose, Drake London, leads the group with some very atypical numbers: 26 catches for 315 yards and two factors.
“There are certain games where we haven’t had to pass as often,” Smith mentioned. “Every game you go in there to balance and we have games and these guys are a big part of our offense.”
WALKER DESERVES START
Baker Mayfield will likely be lively for the sport, however the Panthers are sticking with Walker because the beginning quarterback.
Walker retained first place after finishing 16 of twenty-two passes for 177 yards and two factors in opposition to Tampa Bay.
Walker, who was undrafted, is now forward of the QB, who was drafted #1 general in the 2018 draft.
The Panthers even have No. 3 from that draft, Sam Darnold, who has returned to follow however stays on injured reserve.
“I’m not going to go into detail about the talks,” Wilks mentioned of his QB depth chart. “Every week I meet up with all these three guys … so we’re all in the room together. I don’t try to speak to everyone individually because I want to make sure we have good communication and clarity about what I’m saying to the group.”
Wilks mentioned Mayfield is conscious “of exactly where we’re going this week and he knows his role and he was okay with that.”
No matter who begins as quarterback for the Panthers, they’re going to face a secondary who is especially susceptible as a result of a collection of accidents.
Cornerback Casey Hayward is on injured reserve with a shoulder damage, and two different starters — cornerer AJ Terrell (hamstring) and security Jaylinn Hawkins (concussion) — had been downed in opposition to the Bengals and won’t be able to start out Sunday.
The state of affairs was so determined that Smith thought-about pushing Avery Williams again to the opposite aspect of the road.
“Very close,” mentioned the coach.
WIN THIRD DOWNS
The Panthers’ greatest drawback on offense was third place.
They solely transformed 25% of their third-place probabilities, which is by far the worst in the league. In comparability, the league-leading Buffalo Bills convert almost 53% of their third-place probabilities.
The Falcons additionally did a a lot better job than the Panthers in third place. Atlanta ranks fifth in the NFL with a 44% conversion fee.