Carolina Panthers (1-2) at Atlanta Falcons (2-1)
SERIES HISTORY: 43rd regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 25-17. Panthers have five of the past seven, but Atlanta handed Carolina its only regular-season loss in their Week 16 meeting last season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers have given up 12 sacks through three games and QB Cam Newton has been hit numerous other times as the protection has been extremely shaky. That shouldn't be as big a concern against a Falcons defense that has recorded only three sacks while allowing an average of 313 passing games and 433 total yards per game. Carolina would like to get the running game led by Cameron Artis-Payne going early with Jonathan Stewart (hamstring) expected to be sidelined for a second consecutive week and the Panthers facing an NFL-high 31 third-and-6 or longer situations. The Falcons are also allowing 4.7 yards per carry, so getting off the field will likely prove a challenge.
Atlanta enters with the league's top-ranked scoring offense at 34.7 points per game and has a plethora of playmakers in the running and passing games. Carolina's defense should prove the stiffest test to date, however, and look for coordinator Kyle Shanahan to get RBs Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman involved early in an effort to help protect the defense. Atlanta is averaging 5.0 yards per carry, and the tandem has also combined for 19 receptions. QB Matt Ryan clearly feels more comfortable in his second year in Shanahan's system, and has already connected with 11 different receivers. That type of depth and ability to strike underneath and over the top will stress Carolina's secondary.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Panthers WRs Ted Ginn/Devin Funchess vs. Falcons CB Robert Alford. The Vikings focused on negating Kelvin Benjamin on the other side and Carolina's offense bogged down after scoring 10 quick points last week. With Pro Bowl CB Desmond Trufant set to shadow Benjamin this week, the Panthers need Ginn and/or Funchess to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities on the other side of the field.
--Falcons TE Jacob Tamme vs. Panthers Ss Tre Boston/Kurt Coleman. Tamme enters as Atlanta's leading receiver with 14 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown. He's not fleet of foot, but is a reliable route-runner with the ability to move the chains with opponents so heavily focused on WR Julio Jones. Carolina's linebackers also figure to see coverage duties against Tamme.
INJURY REPORT: PANTHERS -- Out: DT Vernon Butler (ankle), T Michael Oher (concussion), RB Jonathan Stewart (hamstring). Questionable: DE Charles Johnson (quadricep). FALCONS -- Out: LB De'Vondre Campbell (ankle), LB Paul Worrilow (groin).
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers DE Charles Johnson - He has only 1.0 sack in his past 12 regular-season games, but the Georgia native admitted he gets fired up for this matchup and has 4.0 sacks in the past six meetings.
FAST FACTS: The Panthers have not lost consecutive regular-season contests in 23 games. ... In two games against Atlanta as a rookie in 2014, Benjamin totaled 10 receptions for 118 yards and a touchdown. ... Jones had 178 yards receiving and a touchdown in the last meeting and is averaging 128.5 yards with touchdowns in his past six home games. ... The Falcons have allowed a touchdown to an opposing tight end in all three games this season. Panthers TE Greg Olsen leads the team with 18 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown.
PREDICTION: The Falcons are revving on all cylinders offensively and are particularly explosive at home, but Carolina is a different animal than Tampa Bay, Oakland or New Orleans. The reigning NFC champs are 1-2 and highly motivated not to drop a key divisional road game. QB Cam Newton leads an offense that should steadily move the chains and keep the pressure up against the league's 30th-ranked defense.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 34-31.