There should be plenty of electricity inside the Georgia Dome when the Atlanta Falcons close their season against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. It will mark the final time Tony Gonzalez suits up in his No. 88 jersey, the final time the 17-year veteran walks out of the locker room with his teammates, set to do battle.
The Falcons (4-11) are sure to do everything possible to make sure Gonzalez's last NFL game is a memorable one, including a likely tribute of some sort. Could ruining the Panthers' NFC South title chances be a part of the Falcons' festivities?
ESPN.com Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and Panthers reporter David Newton break down the matchup.
McClure: David, I'm sure the Panthers (11-4) are aware that this is Gonzalez's last NFL game. Earlier in the season, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman exchanged jerseys with him, knowing that it would be the final time he’d see Gonzalez on the field. Which player from Carolina would be most likely to follow Sherman's lead with such a swap?
Newton: I'm going with wide receiver Steve Smith. He has swapped items with a few players already this season and at this stage of his career. Besides, Smith won't need his own jersey; he's doubtful to play because of a sprained knee.
I suspect the Panthers will be more worried about covering Gonzalez than being nostalgic. He lit them up in the first half of the teams' first meeting before they adjusted coverage to shut him down. It's amazing that at 37 years old he's still a player teams have to plan for. Look for him to get a heavy dose of linebacker Luke Kuechly again.
A year ago, a Carolina team with nothing to play for beat Atlanta soundly in Charlotte late in the season, perhaps dulling some of the Falcons' momentum going into the playoffs. Are the Falcons hungry to play the spoiler, or just play out the string?
McClure: I think they're just trying to finish up the season unscathed and build toward next year. Coach Mike Smith has started nearly a full-fledged youth movement. In a Week 15 win over the Washington Redskins, nine players in the starting lineup were either rookies or second-year players. Smith contends that the Falcons aren't worried about draft positioning and are more concerned with winning games. At the same time, I'm sure they don't want to fall out of the top five in the draft order; they stand at No. 6 right now. Whatever the case, Smith's job is secure going into next season.
I know there had been some talk before about Ron Rivera's status, but he has no doubt silenced his critics, correct?
Newton: Rivera has pretty much slammed the door on his critics. If he doesn't get an extension out of this, it will be a shame. I've been really impressed with the way he remained the same during this hot streak to close the season as he was during a 1-3 start. That consistency, that unwillingness to waver from what he believed was the right way to build this team, is why the Panthers are in the position they're in.
He is indeed a players' coach. He doesn't ask anybody to do anything on the field that he wouldn't have done himself as a player. The biggest change since the season began is in his philosophy on fourth down. He has gone for it so many times that he's earned the nickname "Riverboat Ron." But most of that is more calculated than you'd think, and it has a lot to do with believing in what his players can do.
You mentioned Smith being solid in Atlanta, but there obviously needs to be some changes in personnel to shore up that defense during the offseason, right?
McClure: Correct. The first changes I anticipate are among the coaching staff, likely first on the defensive side. Once those coaching changes are made, the Falcons can identify where they are going with their schemes and identify which players make the best fit. Obviously, they need help along the offensive and defensive lines, and having a high draft pick helps the cause. I wouldn't be surprised to see them go after a linebacker in free agency and maybe try to add an elusive running back to the mix. Safety also is an area that needs to be addressed. And if the Falcons aren't fully confident in rookie Levine Toilolo as Gonzalez's replacement, they need to target another tight end.
I think the Panthers showed this year that they can compete with anyone, but what will it take to get them to the next level in terms of consistently being among the NFC's top teams?
Newton: They may be there now, but there are a few pieces that must be addressed after the offseason. Steve Smith isn't getting any younger, and No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell is unsigned. The secondary, despite its rank, could use a shutdown corner. And a decision on re-signing left tackle Jordan Gross must be made.
Otherwise, you have a strong nucleus in 2011 Offensive Rookie of the Year Cam Newton at quarterback; Kuechly, the 2012 Defensive Rookie of the Year, at linebacker; and 2013 candidate Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle. General manager Dave Gettleman has done a good job of clearing cap room to re-sign key players and add needed pieces. I'd say it's more a matter of fine-tuning at this point.