Falcons at Panthers
Their playoff hopes were dealt a huge blow last week, and now it appears the Carolina Panthers will be without their star quarterback for the final two games of the season. Taylor Heinicke will make his first career start in place of Cam Newton when the Panthers host the NFC South-rival Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
The Panthers haven’t officially shut down Newton for the remainder of the season, but the shoulder injury that clearly bothered him in Monday’s 12-9 loss to New Orleans will keep him on the sideline Sunday. That’s another blow to Carolina’s already flimsy playoff hopes - the team must win its final two games and get help from several teams to sneak into the postseason. Atlanta, which has been eliminated from playoff contention, saw its offense come to life in last week’s 40-14 win over Arizona. The Falcons have won five of their last six meetings with the Panthers, including a 31-24 home triumph in Week 2.
TV: 1 p.m. ET, FOX. LINE: Falcons -3. O/U: 43.5
ABOUT THE FALCONS (5-9): Atlanta has hovered near the bottom of the league in rushing all season but exploded for a season-high 215 yards last week. The Falcons are dangerous when they're able to run the ball, creating more opportunities for Matt Ryan (4,307 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, six interceptions) and Julio Jones - who leads the NFL with 1,511 receiving yards. The defense was wracked with injuries early in the season but has played better of late as it forced three turnovers while holding Arizona to 253 total yards last week.
ABOUT THE PANTHERS (6-8): Newton’s absence changes the dynamic of Carolina’s offense, taking away a rushing weapon to complement Christian McCaffrey (1,747 scrimmage yards) and creating a major question mark in the passing game. Heinicke hasn’t started a game since his senior year at Old Dominion in 2014 and has thrown only five passes in his NFL career. The Panthers will have to hope for another outstanding performance from their defense, which limited the Saints' prolific offense to a respectable 346 total yards last week.
1. Ryan has averaged 331.3 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions in his last six games against the Panthers.
2. Atlanta WR Calvin Ridley (699) and Carolina WR D.J. Moore (688) rank first and second, respectively, in receiving yards among NFL rookies.
3. Jones has topped 100 yards receiving in four straight road games.