As always, the final week of the NFL season is jam-packed with exciting games and complicated playoff scenarios. In the 2014 iteration, three games will decide division champions as the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons, and Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers match up.
While the NFC wildcard spots have been decided, four AFC teams have an outside chance of snatching the sixth seed, with San Diego leading the charge. Fascinating matchups abound, the most intriguing of all is the Panthers on the road in Atlanta to decide the NFC South and claim a home playoff game, with the loser missing out altogether.
Both the Falcons and the Panthers enter their Week 17 matchup with losing records, and the winner will be only the second team in the modern era to make the playoffs with a losing record, the first being the 7-9 2010 Seattle Seahawks.
At several points this season, both the Falcons and the Panthers had looked dead in the water. The Panthers had lost 6 straight games and were 3-8-1 before winning their last three. Now the team sits atop the division and would represent the South even with a tie. The Falcons had lost five in a row, and were 2-6, but have won four out of seven. According to FiveThirtyEight, the percentage chance of Atlanta making the postseason given their record was never more than 9% after Week 4, and with nine losses sits at 1%. They would go from 1% to 100% with a win.
If Atlanta hopes to represent the South, they will need their offense to overpower Carolina. Over their last seven games, Atlanta has scored 27 points per contest. In those games, quarterback Matt Ryan has cut down heavily on his interceptions, throwing four versus eight in his first eight. A big factor in Ryan’s success is star wide receiver Julio Jones, who has caught 100 passes for 1,535 yards and six touchdowns. Over their last seven, Jones has been otherworldly, hauling in 47 catches for 801 yards, even sitting out one of those games with an injury.
The Panthers will need a healthy and dynamic Cam Newton and a stout defense to outlast the Falcons and claim the South. Newton looked good in his first start back last week after a car accident, throwing for 201 yards and a touchdown while rushing 12 times for 63 yards and another score. A good sign for Panthers fans: Newton’s 12 carries were the second most he has had all season. Talking to reporters at nfl.com, Newton is locked in on the game and avoiding all the noise.
"Getting a win is the only thing that matters to me," Newton said. "The other fluff, that's not important to me. I just want to get the win."
More than getting a strong performance out of Newton, Carolina needs its defense to continue playing well. Over their last three games, Carolina has been especially stingy, allowing only 13 points per game on the strength of a passing defense that has allowed only 166 yards per game and a third-down conversion defense allowing only 33% of plays to finish in first downs.
In a "win and get in" game, anything and everything is on the table. In this specific matchup, a slight edge should go to Atlanta who will play at home in front of a frenzied crowd. Do not count out Cam Newton though, as he has the big-game pedigree to pull out a victory.