CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The playoff scenario for the Carolina Panthers is simple as they prepare for Sunday's 4:25 p.m. regular-season finale at Atlanta.
Win and you're in. Lose and you're done.
The winner of this game will be the No. 4 seed in the NFC and host either Arizona (11-4) or Seattle (11-4) as the No. 5 seed. If Seattle beats St. Louis then it's definitely Arizona. If the Seahawks lose and Arizona beats San Francisco, then the Seahawks come to Charlotte.
None of that means anything for the Panthers (6-8-1) if they don't beat the Atlanta Falcons (6-9) at the Georgia Dome. Here are three things to keep an eye on for Carolina, eyeing its fourth straight win:
Fast start. As coach Ron Rivera said repeatedly this week, the Panthers can't beat Atlanta settling for field goals over touchdowns as they did in the first quarter of last week's victory over Cleveland -- and as they have for much of the season. They also can't afford to play the first three quarters as they did when these teams met in Week 11. The Falcons led 16-3 going into the final quarter. Quarterback Cam Newton had a passer rating below 30 for three quarters. There was a point in the fourth quarter where he completed six of seven pass attempts for 136 yards and two touchdowns. The Panthers and Newton need to start the way they finished, the way they started four weeks ago at New Orleans in their best performance of the season. They jumped on the Saints for a 17-0 lead and never looked back. They set the tone. Allow Atlanta to and they'll be in trouble.
Cam Newton. As mentioned, he had a horrible first three quarters when these teams first met. He struggled to find a tempo and chemistry with his receivers. Opening in the no-huddle offense that has helped him get on track early seems like a no-brainer. That he'll have the same offensive line in front of him for the fifth straight week should help. This group has paved the way for close to 200 yards rushing a game the past four weeks. The running game takes pressure off Newton and opens up everything. But if the Falcons stack the front as they did in the final drive of the first game when Carolina stopped being aggressive, Newton still has to be effective against the league's 32nd-ranked pass defense, something he didn't do until it was too late in the first game.
Matt Ryan-Julio Jones: The Panthers did a good job of negating this combination in the first meeting. With cornerback Josh Norman shadowing Jones for the most part with some zone coverage mixed in, he was held to six catches for 59 yards and no touchdowns. Jones is the hottest receiver in the league. Keeping him from getting into a rhythm will be essential. Pressuring Ryan also is key. The Panthers sacked him nine times in last year's season finale. They haven't gotten to the quarterback nearly as often as last year when they led the league with 60 sacks, but they need to get close enough to Ryan to force him out of his comfort zone. Atlanta has the league's fifth-best pass attack, and with starting running back Stephen Jackson expected to be out it will rely more heavily on that. Take away Jones and this unit is that much more limited.