W2W4: Panthers at Falcons

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- As if the Carolina Panthers needed more motivation for Sunday's 1 p.m. ET regular-season finale at Atlanta, secondary coach Steve Wilks on Friday provided the team with current temperatures for Green Bay and Chicago.

Sixteen in Green Bay.

Twenty-six in Chicago.

"We most certainly would not like to go into those situations,'' coach Ron Rivera said.

The Panthers (11-4) can avoid a trip to either as a wild-card team by beating the Falcons (4-11) to win the NFC South title and a first-round bye that would guarantee them a home playoff game in two weeks.

To do that, they have to avoid looking past an Atlanta team that prior to the season was a popular pick to win the division. If they needed a reminder of just how good the Falcons can be, Monday night's 34-24 loss at San Francisco should suffice.

Atlanta was inside the 49ers' 20-yard line with just over a minute remaining with a chance to win or tie when linebacker NaVorro Bowman returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown.

"They played their ass off,'' Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said.

Johnson expects the Falcons to do the same against the Panthers. You'd be hard-pressed to find one of his teammates who didn't feel the same, which is music to Rivera's ears.

"I'm glad they seem to be getting the message,'' said Rivera, who has preached all week that the Falcons still have Pro Bowl players such as quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Roddy White.

The Panthers are treating this like a playoff game, and with good reason. A win and they have an extra week to rest injured players such as wide receiver Steve Smith (knee). A win and they can wrap up the No. 2 seed in the NFC, No. 1 if Seattle loses to St. Louis and San Francisco beats Arizona.

A loss and they could be playing at Green Bay or Chicago.


Here are four things Carolina has to do to avoid a trip to the frigid North:

Stay focused: The Panthers can't get caught up in having already clinched a playoff spot. There doesn't seem to be any danger of that, but if there is they should remember how they dismantled an Atlanta team en route to the NFC South title 30-20 a year ago during Week 14.

Stop Gonzalez: This will be the final game for future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. He had five catches for 77 yards before the Panthers clamped down, holding him to one second-half catch for four yards in Week 9. Look for middle linebacker Luke Kuechly to again be heavily involved. It will be an emotional game for Gonzalez, and the Panthers can't let him control things.

Forget Smith: Wide receiver Steve Smith (knee) can't help the Panthers, so this will be a big test to see how Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon have grown. The final drive in Sunday's 17-13 victory over New Orleans should be a boost. Ginn had a 37-yard reception to start the game-winning drive and Hixon finished it with a 14-yard touchdown catch.

Be defensive: The league's second-ranked defense just needs to do what it has done all season. That is pressure the quarterback as it did last week in sacking Drew Brees six times. That is stop the run as it did in holding Atlanta to 78 yards in the first meeting. That is force turnovers as it did with three against Ryan in the first meeting. Continue to do those things and the rest should take care of itself.