CAROLINA PANTHERS (11-4) AT ATLANTA FALCONS (9-6)
SERIES HISTORY: 47th regular-season meeting. Falcons lead series, 28-18. The Falcons have won three of the last four. The Panthers won 20-17 on Nov. 5.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Panthers will have two veteran defenders back this week. Defensive end Charles Johnson has been out for four games because of a violation of the league's PED policy. Linebacker Thomas Davis missed one game with a suspension for a vicious hit in the Green Bay game.
Coach Ron Rivera tried to put a positive spin on what Johnson and Davis might bring at the end of the season. Because they are veterans in the league, the time off could provide them with extra energy for these post-Christmas games.
The loss of wide receiver Damiere Byrd to a season-ending injury just one quarter after he returned a kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown was another blow to the receiving corps.
At least this isn't the first time quarterback Cam Newton has been forced to adjust.
The Panthers traded top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin in the fall. Since then, rookie speedster wide receiver Curtis Samuel went down for the season with an injury.
"A little bit of shock with what we're trying to do, but we have people who can come in and fill that role," Newton said of the loss of Byrd, who went on injured reserve with lower leg injury.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Panthers offensive line vs. Falcons OLB Vic Beasley Jr. The Panthers have patched up spots because of injuries along the offensive front throughout the season, but they could have the preferred first-stringers available for this game. Beasley is still looking to make a consistent impact for the Falcons. He hasn't had a sack since the November matchup at Carolina.
--Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Panthers CBs Daryl Worley and James Bradberry. Jones has had big games against Carolina's secondary and he's bound to be a focal point for the Atlanta offense until the Panthers prove they can keep him under control. Worley and Bradberry have gained a little swagger, each swiping a pair of interceptions this month. But Jones racked up 118 receiving yards on the Panthers in the November meeting.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORTS
--Questionable: S Kurt Coleman (ankle), CB Ladarius Gunter (illness), G Trai Turner (concussion)
--Out: TE Levine Toilolo (knee)
--Questionable: C Alex Mack (calf)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Panthers LB Thomas Davis. He's coming off an NFL suspension because of an illegal hit two weeks ago in the Green Bay game. He's a veteran who knows about the rivalry with the Falcons, so he could be fired up in that regard. But he also could be inclined to be a bit cautious given the scrutiny he's under from the NFL. Davis has only 66 tackles this season, meaning he will fail to reach the 100-tackle mark for the first time in six years.
FAST FACTS: The Panthers clinched a playoff berth for the fourth time in the past five years and can clinch the NFC South with a win and a Saints loss. ... QB Cam Newton had a game-winning 2-yard rushing touchdown with 35 seconds remaining in Week 16. He leads NFL QBs in rushing yards (695). ... Rookie RB Christian McCaffrey had 94 yards from scrimmage (66 rushing) and a rushing touchdown in his last game vs. Atlanta. ... WR Devin Funchess has 168 receiving yards and a touchdown catch in his past two road games. ... DE Julius Peppers has five sacks and a forced fumble in his past six road games. ... DT Kawann Short has 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his past three games. ... The Falcons can clinch a playoff berth with a win or a Seattle loss. ... QB Matt Ryan passed for 313 yards and two touchdowns in his last game vs. Carolina. ... RB Tevin Coleman has four rushing touchdowns in his past five home games. He had a touchdown catch in Week 16. ... WR Julio Jones ranks third in the NFL with 1,364 receiving yards. ... LB Deion Jones is the only NFL player with 125 tackles (128) and three interceptions. ... S Keanu Neal leads NFC safeties with 109 tackles. ... LB Vic Beasley Jr. has three sacks and a forced fumble in five games vs. Carolina.
PREDICTION: It's Showdown Part II for the Falcons. Part I, a 23-13 loss in New Orleans, didn't go so well. Despite flashes of 2016's offense, Atlanta is still struggling. The Panthers will win their fourth straight.
OUR PICK: Panthers, 33-17.