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Newton returns home for Panthers' battle with Falcons

The last time Cam Newton visited the Georgia Dome, he came away with one of the biggest victories of his collegiate career.

Wins have been so far harder to come by at the professional level for the rookie sensation, who leads his Carolina Panthers into battle for Sunday's important NFC South clash with the struggling Atlanta Falcons.

Newton, a native of the Atlanta suburb of College Park, delivered one of the most electrifying performances of his prolific 2010 season at Auburn University at the Georgia Dome last December. The mega-talented young quarterback accounted for six touchdowns (four passing, two rushing) while throwing for 335 yards to lead the Tigers to a 56-17 blowout of South Carolina in the SEC Championship Game.

That epic display helped cement the charismatic 22-year-old the Heisman Trophy and led to the rebuilding Panthers selecting him with the first overall choice in this past April's NFL Draft.

Newton certainly hasn't disappointed during his brief tenure in the pros, having amassed an impressive 1,610 passing yards through his first five games with Carolina and having a hand in 12 of the Panthers' 13 touchdowns this season. He's the first player in NFL history with five passing and rushing touchdowns over the initial five outings of his career.

Those remarkable accomplishments have yet to translate into success for the Panthers, however. Carolina enters this mid-October tilt with a 1-4 record, though the team has hardly been a pushover in head coach Ron Rivera's debut campaign.

All of the Panthers' defeats have come by seven points or less, and nearly every one has come against top-notch competition. Carolina fought the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers to the wire in a 30-23 setback in Week 2, and came up just short in matchups with 2010 playoff entries Chicago (29-24) and New Orleans (30-27) as well.

Newton gave Carolina a 27-23 lead with a short scoring pass to Greg Olsen early in the fourth quarter of last weekend's bout with the high-powered Saints, before Drew Brees marched New Orleans down the field for a go-ahead touchdown with under a minute left to play.

Atlanta boasts similar credentials to the teams the Panthers haven't been able to beat, though this year's Falcons haven't exactly resembled the outfit that steamrolled through the schedule en route to securing the NFC's top seed in 2010. The defending division champions are off to a sluggish 2-3 start, which already matches their entire loss total of the 2010 regular season.

The Falcons appeared to get themselves back on track at the outset of this past Sunday's rematch with the Packers, who shattered Atlanta's Super Bowl dreams with a 48-21 rout in last January's NFC Divisional Playoffs. The team jumped out to a quick 14-0 advantage, but Green Bay scored 25 unanswered points to keep its 2011 record unblemished.

Matt Ryan contributed to the Falcons' latest loss by throwing two fourth- quarter interceptions, giving the slumping quarterback nine turnovers in five games this season. The usually-steady fourth-year pro comes into this contest with a career-low 79.9 passer rating that ranks just 12th among NFC signal- callers.

"It certainly hasn't been good enough up to this point," said Ryan of his play. "So it's something that I think I need to play better; I think all of our guys need to play better. That's what we're trying to do.

Regaining its recent dominance at the Georgia Dome would help get Atlanta headed in the right direction. The Falcons have compiled a 21-5 home record during the regular season during head coach Mike Smith's four-year tenure, and two of those losses came when Ryan wasn't under center.

SERIES HISTORY

Atlanta owns a 20-12 lead in the overall series by virtue of two 2010 wins over the Panthers by identical 31-10 scores, with the most recent one occurring at the Georgia Dome in the regular-season finale. Carolina had left Atlanta with a victory in three straight years from 2005-07, but has lost in each of its last three attempts as the visitor in this series. The Panthers last bested the Falcons during Week 10 of the 2009 season, a 28-19 verdict in Charlotte.

Smith is 4-2 lifetime against Carolina, while Rivera will be opposing both Atlanta and Smith for the first time in his present occupation.

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

The premise of a rapidly-improved Carolina offense that ranks fifth in the NFL in total yards (428.2 ypg) is to get the ball in the hands of Newton (1610 passing yards, 7 TD, 6 INT) as much as possible, and it's to argue with that philosophy. The dynamic rookie has produced at a clip of over 350 yards per game (322 passing, 32 rushing) and is as great a threat with his legs as with his rocket right arm. Newton's arrival has also triggered a rebirth for veteran wideout Steve Smith (27 receptions, 3 TD), whose 609 receiving yards are the second-most in the league at the moment, and the fiery four-time Pro Bowler is averaging a tremendous 22.6 yards per catch on the year. Olsen (20 receptions, 3 TD) has emerged as Newton's go-to guy in the red zone, with the offseason pickup notching a touchdown catch in three straight games, while fellow tight end Jeremy Shockey (14 receptions) provides another reliable underneath target for the NFL's fifth-best aerial attack (311.6 ypg). The running game has also been operating near full throttle as of late, with Carolina following up a 169-yard output on the ground at Chicago in Week 4 with 162 rushing yards against the Saints last week. The backfield possesses a true home-run hitter in DeAngelo Williams (258 rushing yards, 1 TD, 7 receptions), who's averaged a sizzling 10.4 yards per carry over the past two Sundays and ripped off a 69-yard touchdown in the New Orleans loss.

Preventing the big play has been a challenge for a disappointing Atlanta defense thus far. Opposing quarterbacks have averaged 294.2 yards through the air and 8.5 yards per pass attempt on the Falcons, both the fourth-worst figures in the league, with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers shredding the unit for 369 yards and two scores a week ago. Those numbers are unfitting for a secondary that fields two established cornerbacks in 2010 Pro Bowl honoree Brent Grimes (25 tackles, 6 PD) and Dunta Robinson (22 tackles) and is backed by a usually capable pass rush headed by veteran sack artist John Abraham (8 tackles, 2 sacks), who sat out against the Packers but is expected back for Sunday's game. Atlanta has been stiffer against the run, having yielded just 110 rushing yards combined over the previous two weeks. Linebackers Sean Weatherspoon (49 tackles, 1 sack) and Curtis Lofton (47 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD) have spearheaded the team's efforts in that department, while strong safety William Moore (22 tackles, 1 INT) is a physical in-the-box defender who's status for this week is in question due to a shoulder injury.

WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL

While the Panthers will be unveiling Newton before the hometown crowd on Sunday, Atlanta won't have its high-impact rookie available for this game. Wide receiver Julio Jones (25 receptions, 358 yards), the team's first-round pick in the 2011 draft, has been ruled out of the contest after straining a hamstring last week, and that could be a big blow to an offense that's relied heavily on the pass in the early going. Slot man Harry Douglas (11 receptions) and return specialist Eric Weems will attempt to fill the void, but more than likely Ryan (1302 passing yards, 7 TD, 6 INT) will be more dependent on top target Roddy White (32 receptions, 352 yards, 2 TD) and ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez (27 receptions, 4 TD), who's gotten his 15th NFL season off to an excellent beginning. It would also aid the Falcons' cause if running back Michael Turner (360 rushing yards, 4 TD, 6 receptions) can rediscover a groove. After opening the year with two straight 100-yard performances, the powerful workhorse has averaged a pedestrian 49 yards and 2.8 yards per attempt over the past three weeks. The lack of a consistent ground game has put a strain on both Ryan and an offensive line that's allowed 14 sacks to date, but is hopeful valued center Todd McClure can make it back from a lingering knee injury that's limited him to just two starts this year.

Turner may be primed for a breakout against a Carolina defense that ranks a lowly 27th against the run (135.2 ypg) and was shredded for 224 rushing yards by Chicago two weeks back. Injuries to the linebacking corps have taken their toll on the group, with standout middle man Jon Beason and experienced outside starter Thomas Davis already lost for the season with injuries and Davis' replacement, Omar Gaither (8 tackles), also out for the time being with a knee sprain. The Panthers do have two very good healthy pass rushers in ends Charles Johnson (16 tackles, 4 sacks) and Greg Hardy (21 tackles, 3 sacks), with the duo combining for seven of the club's modest total of eight sacks. Those two will need to be in top form to protect a shaky secondary that's surrendered a league-worst 8.7 yards per pass attempt and has little proven depth other than top cover man Chris Gamble (8 tackles, 4 PD) and free safety Sherrod Martin (24 tackles, 2 INT, 5 PD). The Panthers also haven't been very good at forcing turnovers, having notched only five takeaways in five games.

KEYS TO THE GAME

Turnovers. The Falcons were one of the league's stingiest teams in this area during last year's 13-3 playoff run, but have been plagued by uncharacteristic miscues this season. Atlanta has given the ball away eight times and had a minus-four turnover ratio in its three defeats, but owns a plus-three margin in its two victories. Carolina, meanwhile, has lost all four games it's been even or behind in that category and won the only time it came out ahead

Turner. The difference-making running back has rushed for over 100 yards in four of Atlanta's last five meetings with the Panthers, and his team has won three of those contests in which he's eclipsed that mark. Getting him unleashed should give the Falcons some much-needed balance on offense, especially with one of its top weapons in Jones missing in action.

Better defense. Both of these participants have been liabilities on that side of the ball, and their deficiencies have been reflected in the overall records of each. It's especially important for the Falcons to step it up this week, as Carolina has displayed far more playmaking ability on offense than its divisional rival over the season's initial stages.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Everyone's been waiting for the Falcons, a popular preseason pick to represent the NFC in this year's Super Bowl, to finally put it all together and live up to their advance billing. While there's a chance that may never happen, as Atlanta's chinks in the armor are legitimate concerns, the young and defensively-challenged Panthers may just be the perfect opponent to get well against. Jones' injury could actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as his absence may prompt the Falcons to get back to basics and return to the formula that's worked so well under Smith in the past -- run the football with authority and play efficiently on offense. If Turner can become a factor once again, and he draws an inviting matchup against a Carolina team that's had issues stopping the run, that should go a long way towards Ryan performing to his usual high standards and the Falcons regaining their prior dominance at the Georgia Dome.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 31, Panthers 20