Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner was the focal point of last season's offense and helped the team capture the top seed in the conference that year. Though having a more quiet 2011 campaign, he is still putting up solid numbers as evidenced by his 992 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Turner is on pace for his second straight 1,000-yard season and third over the past four years and will look to run past the Carolina Panthers once again when the two NFC South rivals clash Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
Turner had his best game of the season in a 31-17 win versus Carolina at the Georgia Dome on Oct. 16, when he ran for a season-best 139 yards and two touchdowns on a season-high 27 carries.
The bulky Turner has been tough to take down during his four seasons in Atlanta and tends to show that when playing the Panthers. He has enjoyed a lot of success in this series, rushing for 707 yards and 11 touchdowns on 151 carries -- his most against any other team in the league -- in seven career games against the Panthers.
Turner has hit the 100-yard rushing mark five times this season, but was bottled up for 44 yards on 14 touches in last Sunday's 17-10 loss at Houston. He rested during the week leading up to the game because of a groin issue, but said it had no effect on his game status. Turner was up against Houston's tough 3-4 defense, an alignment in which Atlanta hasn't fared too well against in the past.
"We were aggressive," Turner told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I didn't have any problem with [Houston's scheme]. We had some big plays out there for us. We just didn't make them."
Carolina runs a typical 4-3 defensive front and will probably add a few wrinkles to try to slow Turner down. The Falcons are 4-1 when he hits the century mark in rushing, though they also may try to focus on getting quarterback Matt Ryan back into the groove.
Ryan knew going into the Texans game that passing would be an ideal strategy since running the ball was going to be tough. That turned out to be true, as Ryan finished with a passer rating of 50.6 -- his lowest in 35 games and worst since a 46.6 rating against New Orleans in 2009.
The Falcons tried airing it out on a few occasions last week, but never got anything going. The only touchdown for Atlanta was a four-yard scoring toss to wide receiver Roddy White, who's another star player having an ordinary season.
If the Falcons have any intentions on repeating as NFC South champions they know they will have to step it up over the next four weeks. New Orleans currently owns a two-game lead over Atlanta in the division and doesn't appear to be slowing down behind Drew Brees and a high-powered offense. As of now, the Falcons will be competing with the New York Giants, Detroit and Chicago for one of the conference's two Wild Card berths.
Carolina is playing out the string and for pride, but would enjoy nothing more than to spoil Atlanta's playoff hopes this weekend. It has won back-to-back games since losing three straight and six of seven contests, and recorded a convincing 38-19 triumph at Tampa Bay this past Sunday.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton continued his push towards Rookie of the Year honors by rushing for three scores and throwing a touchdown pass against the Buccaneers. The 2011 No. 1 overall pick set the NFL single-season record for the most rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 13, surpassing the previous mark of 12 by Steve Grogan of the New England Patriots in 1976, and has rushed for 518 yards and a league-best 13 scores on 100 carries this season. Newton's 13 rushing touchdowns are the second most in franchise history for a season, five behind the team record of 18 set by DeAngelo Williams in 2008.
"He's growing and getting better and better each week," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of Newton. "He's growing in this offense and he's getting a feel for what we want to do. But the big thing has been the way his teammates have played around him. You have to take your hat off to what the offensive line has done and to our playmakers, these guys are getting things done to give us a chance to win."
Newton was sacked twice by Tampa Bay and has been taken down 18 times in the last six games. The Panthers will have to tighten up their protection with the Falcons up next on the docket, as the Falcons should be keying on Newton for the better part of the week.
The young quarterback has shown the ability to beat defenses with his arm as well, though wideout Steve Smith -- Carolina's top receiving threat and Newton's favorite target, hasn't been much of a factor over the past few weeks, averaging just 44 yards per game in the team's last four contests. Smith can stretch the defense and will likely need to against a hungry Atlanta squad trying to stay afloat in the NFC playoff picture.
The Panthers are back in familiar territory after playing three straight games on the road, but has lost two straight as the home team.
"Three weeks on the road is tough, so to be able to finish it off with two wins is big," Panthers rookie defensive end Thomas Keiser said. "Now we get to come back to our house and try to make the best of that opportunity."
Atlanta now owns a 21-12 lead in its overall series with Carolina by virtue of its above-mentioned win in Week 6, which followed up a pair of 2010 victories over the Panthers by identical 31-10 scores. The Falcons had lost two straight times in Charlotte prior to last year's triumph, having been dealt a 24-9 defeat at Bank of America Stadium in 2008 and a 28-19 setback there during Week 10 of the 2009 season. Atlanta has not posted a home-and-home sweep of Carolina in consecutive years since taking six straight matchups between the teams from 2000-02.
Falcons head coach Mike Smith is 5-2 lifetime against the Panthers, while Rivera lost his only previous encounter with both Atlanta and Smith as a head man with this past October's loss.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Mike Smith said the Falcons offensive line didn't control the line of scrimmage in both the pass and the run in Houston, but was pleased with how Ryan (3154 passing yards, 19 TD, 12 INT) got rid of the ball under constant duress. The quarterback was pressured all day and absorbed several hits without taking a sack, but he'll need protection against the Panthers if Atlanta has any plans on extending the season after Week 17. Ryan has the Falcons 11th in passing yards with an average of 249.8 per game and is three touchdown passes shy of moving into second place in the franchise's record books. He trails Chris Chandler and Chris Miller, who both tossed 87 touchdowns in their careers as Falcons. Ryan has eclipsed the 3,000-yard passing mark three times in his young career, while the Falcons haven't had a 4,000-yard passer since when Jeff George set the franchise record with 4,143 passing yards in 1995. Ryan threw two interceptions against the Texans after not having one in each of the previous two games. Turner (992 rushing yards, 8 TD) has the Falcons 16th in rushing (113.8 ypg), while White (68 receptions, 881 yards, 5 TD) leads the team in catches. Tight end Tony Gonzalez (66 receptions, 7 TD) has caught at least 60 passes in 13 straight years and now has a reception in 175 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the NFL.
The Panthers should expect to see a lot of Turner on Sunday, since he's enjoyed plenty of success in this series. Carolina is also 27th in run defense, allowing 132.5 yards per game on the ground, but held the Buccaneers to 78 rushing yards last week. The Panthers limited Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount, who had posted consecutive 100-yard outings and entered the game ranked 10th in the NFC in rushing, to 19 yards on 11 attempts. They also forced one turnover in Tampa thanks to Keiser (8 tackles, 3 sacks), who notched his first career interception and added a sack. The one takeaway resulted in seven points for the Panthers, who have a negative-three turnover ratio this season. Carolina has a 4-0 record when having a positive turnover margin, but is 0-8 when being either even or negative in that category. End Charles Johnson (35 tackles) pushed his team-leading sack total to nine on the season by taking down Tampa Bay backup quarterback Josh Johnson last Sunday and will try to bring the heat on Ryan this week, while safety Sherrod Martin (49 tackles) and cornerback Chris Gamble (31 tackles) share the team lead in interceptions with three apiece. Linebacker James Anderson (100 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) leads the team in stops.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Newton (3297 passing yards, 13 TD, 14 INT) posted a rating of 106.1 last week -- his fourth game of the season with a number of at least 100. His 3,297 passing yards are the fourth-most by a rookie in NFL history and the most by a first-year quarterback in Panthers history, surpassing the 2,931 yards by Chris Weinke in 2001. Newton hasn't passed for 300-plus yards since Week 4 at Chicago, but also hasn't thrown an interception in consecutive contests, though he's had only one touchdown pass in that span. The Panthers have the league's eighth-ranked passing offense at 260.0 yards per game and match up well against Atlanta's 21st-rated pass defense. Carolina is fifth in total yards with an average of 397.6 per game, but will need Steve Smith (61 receptions, 1092 yards, 5 TD) to regain his form from a few weeks ago. The veteran wide receiver did have his 71st consecutive game with at least one reception against the Buccaneers, but finished with only two catches for 32 yards while being targeted six times. Wideout Legedu Naanee (38 receptions, 1 TD) had the only touchdown catch for the Panthers, who got a game-best 80 yards rushing from Jonathan Stewart (522 rushing yards, 3 TD). Williams (569 rushing yards, 3 TD) wasn't a factor last week after gaining 29 yards on 11 carries, and the tandem will face a tough task against Atlanta's run defense.
The Falcons are a stout defense, especially against the run, but were exposed a bit against Houston. Atlanta entered the game as the second-ranked unit against the rush, giving up 85.3 yards per game, but allowed 162 yards on the ground. The team had given up just 146 rushing yards combined in the three previous games before last Sunday's loss. Texans running back Arian Foster had 111 yards on 31 carries, becoming the first player to run for more than 100 yards against the Falcons in 15 games. Factoring in on Newton is a must for any defense, but the Falcons can't get too caught up with the rookie because Williams or Stewart can take over a game as well. Atlanta runs a 4-3 defense headlined by middle linebacker Curtis Lofton (111 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), who posted a game-high 11 stops in Houston. He also recorded his first sack of the season and was one of four players to finish with 10-plus tackles. Safety James Sanders (37 tackles), linebacker Mike Peterson (19 tackles) and safety Thomas DeCoud (63 tackles, 3 INT) all had 10 stops apiece, while DeCoud has a team- best three interceptions this season. Defensive end John Abraham (25 tackles) tallied a sack against Houston and leads the Falcons with five. The veteran has 107 1/2 career sacks and is tied with Pat Swilling for 17th in NFL history.
KEYS TO THE GAME
With four games remaining on the season for the Falcons, Sunday's division showdown with Carolina is a must-win situation. Ryan must play better than he did last week in order to keep the offense from becoming one-dimensional. The Falcons can still claim their second straight NFC South title by winning out and hoping for some help around the league, but a Wild Card seems more likely.
Carolina has won consecutive games for the first time since finishing the 2009 campaign with three straight triumphs over Minnesota, the Giants and Saints. The odds of winning again could be more in their favor, since the game will be played in Carolina and Newton has a better grasp of the offense. The rookie quarterback has come a long way since the Panthers' first meeting with Atlanta and would like to prove it.
Can the Falcons stop Newton and his powerful legs from reaching the end zone on Sunday? Atlanta can not focus all of its attention on the rookie quarterback, as Steve Smith will likely be a factor despite having had less production lately.
The Saints can win the NFC South with a victory over Tennessee and a loss by the Falcons, which is why this is such an important week for the latter. Cornerback Brent Grimes is not expected to play due to injury, and that could lead to problems for the Falcons' defense. The Panthers are eighth in passing offense and will give everything they have to throw a wrench in Atlanta's postseason ambitions. In the end, however, Turner will once again carry his team to victory and keep Atlanta's NFC South title aspirations a faint possibility.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Panthers 20