Carolina (4-3) has won three straight and four of its past five games to move into position for a playoff run. Atlanta (2-5), a preseason contender to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, has lost four of its past five games.
ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton and Falcons writer Vaughn McClure are here to break down Sunday's NFC South game at Bank of America Stadium:
Newton: Vaughn, I know the Falcons have had a lot of injuries. Is their record really a product of that or are there much deeper issues?
McClure: When you lose a player as dynamic as Julio Jones (foot) for the season and miss Roddy White (hamstring, ankle) for two games, it makes a drastic difference. Plus, the Falcons lost defensive end/linebacker Kroy Biermann (Achilles) for the season and have been without defensive leader Sean Weatherspoon (foot) since Week 2. So, yes, injuries have taken a toll.
That being said, a team with solid depth would be able to weather some of the storm. The Falcons don't have the type of depth they need, which has to be addressed in the offseason. Offensively, the lack of balance without a running game and the inconsistency of the line have hurt. Defensively, the Falcons have surrendered 11 plays of 40-plus yards. That's all a recipe for disaster. I'm sure Cam Newton is licking his chops, right?
Newton: I don't know about licking his chops, but Newton's had an incredible run that has his confidence at an all-time high. Only San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick (94.1) and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton (89.2) have a higher quarterback rating than Newton (88.2) over the past three games. He's going through his reads better than ever and taking what the defense gives him instead of trying to force things.
I see no reason for that to stop this week against an Atlanta defense that has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 65 percent of their passes. But I suspect Newton would be confident going against the Falcons regardless, considering last year he passed for 502 yards and four touchdowns against them in two games. I'm sure he's wanting to make up for the late fumble that cost the Panthers a chance to sweep Atlanta, too.
While we're on quarterbacks, how has Matt Ryan handled being without most of his top weapons the past few weeks? Is it asking too much for him to carry the entire load?
McClure: Yes, I think it is asking too much of Ryan. He had no issues two games ago against the lowly Buccaneers, when he completed 20 of 26 passes for 273 yards, three touchdowns and a career-high passer rating of 148.4. But on Sunday at Arizona, Ryan got pummeled by a relentless Cardinals pass rush that resulted in four sacks and 11 quarterback hits. There was a margin of error for Ryan with Jones and White on the field because both receivers can make great adjustments on the ball. Now, with the likes of Harry Douglas, Drew Davis and Darius Johnson, Ryan has to be flawless -- although at times Douglas has been sensational.
I give Ryan credit for keeping a positive outlook through it all, but he has to be frustrated. It doesn't look like things will get any easier against the Carolina defense, but what about the status of defensive end Charles Johnson?
Newton: Johnson says it's 100 percent certain the mild groin strain won't keep him off the field on Sunday. He would have to be in a body cast not to play in this game. The Georgia native and former University of Georgia star gets up for the Falcons more than any team in the league. He had a single-game-best 3.5 sacks the first time they met last season and leads the team in sacks this season with six.
But as well as Johnson is playing, the Panthers don't need him to be spectacular like they have the past few seasons. The entire front seven if playing so well as a unit. it's really tough to single out any one player. It all begins with stopping the run, where Carolina ranks second in the league. Speaking of the run, Steven Jackson's first game back was less than stellar. Will he play a bigger role this week?
McClure: He needs to, that's for sure. Jackson entered the Arizona game hoping to bring some balance back to the offense. Instead, the offense took a step back as Jackson rushed for 6 yards on 11 carries. Only Jackson knows if he was fully recovered from the hamstring injury that had sidelined him since Week 2. No one expected him to come back and immediately bust out for 100 yards, particularly against a top-10 run defense. But I think Jackson definitely expected more from himself. He needs to be able to pick up the tough yards and be the team's go-to guy in goal-line situations. We'll see if he does better against the Panthers -- if the Falcons can put themselves in position to score.