As Yogi Berra might say, it’s déjà vu all over again in the NFC South.
You might recall some of our summertime previews of the teams and the division race, when we made note that no entry had successfully defended its title in the NFC South since the NFL realigned in 2002.
Well, we’re only three weeks into the 2012 season, but with last year’s South champion New Orleans already at 0-3 and with little relief for the Saints in sight, that curious trendline looks as if it will stay intact for at least another year.
Which appears to be good news for Carolina and Atlanta...especially for the Falcons.
Indeed, no team has looked better than Atlanta (3-0) in the first three weeks of the 2012 campaign. And for the Falcons, Sunday’s test at home vs. the visiting Panthers (1-2) is a chance to put a vise grip on the NFC South race before the calendar hits October. By Sunday night, Mike Smith’s team could have already have a 3-game lead in the division race.
Oddsmakers seem to be expecting Atlanta to hold up its end of the bargain this weekend, as a check of the Don Best NFL odds screen notes that the Falcons are a solid 7-point favorite, with the ‘total’ hovering between 48½-49 at the majority of Nevada wagering establishments.
Kickoff time for the Sunday matchup at the Georgia Dome is 1:00 p.m. (ET), with FOX providing TV coverage. The venerable Dick Stockton, plus John Lynch and Jennifer Hale, will be on hand to describe the action.
While much of the focus has (rightly) centered upon a dynamic offense that has been lighting up the scoreboard at better than 31 ppg, the Falcon defense has also been carrying its share of the load. Under new coordinator Mike Nolan, Atlanta has been able to effectively mix-and-match its defensive alignments depending upon the situation. Nolan, who has preferred 3-4 looks throughout much of his career, didn’t scrap the Falcs’ base 4-3 defense, but he has added in “multiple” looks which include more three-man fronts in passing situations. Which in turn has helped the productivity of the pass rush (seven sacks already) and effectiveness of the defensive backs.
Thus, many shrewd observers are crediting Nolan’s scheming adjustments for Atlanta’s haul of 11 takeaways, fueling a league-best +10 turnover margin. Impressive numbers for only three weeks of action.
Moreover, if the Falcons continue their turnover-forcing bent, it should be very good news against Cam Newton, considering how the Panthers are 0-11 in games in which the ex-Heisman winner tosses a pick.
As for Carolina, it enters Sunday’s matchup with several concerns, not the least of which have been erratic recent efforts by Newton, hinting at a possible “sophomore slump” that we have often witnessed before in the NFL. Cam has looked sloppy at times in the early going, already tossing five interceptions. Moreover, he was sulking near the end of the Panthers’ 36-7 loss to the Giants last Thursday, prompting a lecture from veteran WR Steve Smith.
For the Panthers, the winning formula still revolves around establishing the run game to provide Newton a proper platform to launch his downfield passing game and create chaos among opposing defenses with his scrambling ability. But when the running lanes are clogged for DeAngelo Williams and the Carolina infantry – as they were vs. the G-Men when the Panthers managed only 60 yards on the ground – and Newton’s escape routes from the pocket are limited, the “O” can sputter, as has been the case in early losses to the Bucs and Giants.
There are concerns defensively for Carolina, too, as the Panthers have not been especially stout vs. the run (allowing 4.5 yards per carry in the first three weeks). This presents possible dangerous scenarios vs. the balanced Atlanta offense that becomes even more lethal when RB Michael Turner can establish an infantry diversion.
Ron Rivera’s Carolina “D” needs to keep the safeties focused on providing coverage help against the many Falcon receiving targets; if the Panther safeties are forced into providing too much run support, they are at greater risk to be burned over the top. How the Carolina front seven performs against the Atlanta running game will go a long way in determining the outcome of this game.
At the moment, red-hot Falcon QB Matt Ryan doesn’t need a lot of extra help. Ryan has been near-flawless in the early going, completing 72 percent of his passes for eight TDs and only one pick in the first three weeks. The arrival of 2nd-year ex-Alabama WR Julio Jones as a substantial downfield threat has put extra pressure on opposing defenses which risk torching if they commit too many resources to stop one specific Atlanta receiving threat.
While Kansas City concentrated on WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez in the opener, Jones burned the Chiefs for 108 yards worth of catches and two scores. When Denver committed extra resources to blanketing Jones and Gonzalez, White burned the Broncos with eight catches for 102 yards and a score. Then, as San Diego focused on keeping wideouts Jones and White in check, it was TE Gonzalez causing extreme damage when catching nine passes in the 27-3 Falcons win at Qualcomm Stadium last week.
There are a lot of ways the Atlanta attack can burn an enemy defense. Carolina has been forewarned.
Recent technical history also paints a nice picture for the Falcs, who have won and covered the spread in four straight vs. the Panthers, including a pair of wins and covers vs. Newton last season. Atlanta has also made something of a fortress out of the Georgia Dome, with the Falcons recording a 10-4-1 spread mark their last 15 as host.