At the outset of the 2012 NFL season, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was wearing a question mark-shaped bull's eye on his back after the latest in a recent series of high-profile postseason flameouts.
Meanwhile, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton was coming off a record-setting inaugural season and being positioned by some as the new and dynamic face of the league.
What a difference three weeks makes.
Heading into the final game week of September, Ryan owns the best passer rating in the NFL and his unbeaten Falcons are off to their best start in eight seasons. And Newton is enduring so difficult a start that he's been forced to deny he's seeing a therapist.
Already up two games in the NFC South Division, the Falcons can add another layer of cushioning when they host the Panthers at the Georgia Dome this Sunday afternoon.
A win would give Atlanta its first 4-0 start since 2004. Ryan's 114.0 rating and eight touchdowns are tied for most in the league.
"When Matt is playing with confidence, I think it permeates around the locker room," coach Mike Smith said. "We've got a lot of guys playing with confidence right now."
Nothing could be further from true for Newton, a suburban Atlanta native, whose two scoring passes are a league low among full-time starting passers.
A 29-point home blowout loss to the New York Giants brought the despair to a head in primetime last Thursday, prompting wide receiver Steve Smith to urge Newton to watch backup Derek Anderson at the end of the game instead of sulking on the bench. At issue since has been Newton's mental toughness, with multiple reports suggesting he'd sought professional help.
He, incidentally, denies the suggestion.
"I have not hired a sports psychologist," Newton said. "I have no idea where that came from. I have a strong support system in my teammates, coaches and family. My focus is on improving this week and getting ready to play Atlanta."
Newton returns to the venue where he threw four touchdowns and ran for two others in beating South Carolina for the SEC championship two seasons ago en route to Auburn's BCS title win.
In one pro game at the Georgia Dome, he was intercepted three times in a 31-17 loss last October, a game in which Atlanta's Michael Turner ran for 139 yards and two scores.
The Falcons won game two of the 2011 series, 31-23, on Dec. 11 and have won the last four overall. In that 2011 encore, Ryan threw for 320 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Newton threw for two scores and was picked off twice.
The resurgent "Matty Ice" had three TD passes in a 24-point road rout of San Diego in Week 3, though a fourth-quarter interception ended a streak of 272 throws without a pick and is the team's lone turnover through 180 minutes of play.
"The confidence level across the board is probably higher than it's been," Ryan said. "That's not to say we haven't been confident in the past. We've had some good football teams in the past."
With Ryan and weapons Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White and Julio Jones on the horizon, it's been up to Carolina coach Ron Rivera to do some pre-test cramming.
"When they were doing certain things on the defensive side for San Diego, I had a pretty good feel for what they were trying to do," said Rivera, a former Chargers defensive coordinator. "I saw some things that I saw success and I saw some things that weren't so successful."
More trouble for Newton could come in the form of the Atlanta secondary, which forced him into two of his four poorest passer ratings of 2011. Atlanta, with offseason arrival Asante Samuel, has a league-best seven interceptions in three games.
The Panthers outlook may be boosted by the returns of three players who'd been MIA against the Giants.
Running back Jonathan Stewart, offensive tackle Byron Bell and linebacker Thomas Davis should play. Bell and Davis returned to practice to begin the week.
Additional help may come via Atlanta distractions after the arrest of pass rusher John Abraham on Monday. He refused requests to leave an area taped off by firefighters and police, leaving the arresting officer to claim he was "obviously intoxicated."
A week earlier, Turner was briefly detained following a drunken driving arrest.
"It is a divisional game, but the truth is, your biggest game is the one you are about to play," Rivera said. "(But) I guess as far as the record goes and being in our division, yes it means a lot, it is a big game."
Atlanta leads the all-time series between the two clubs 22-12 and has won seven of the past nine.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
Second-year quarterback Cam Newton rushed for his 16th career touchdown last week against the Giants, the most by a signal-caller in first two NFL seasons. He had a rushing TD in last game at Atlanta and is the only player in league history with 20 or more passing TDs (23) and 15 or more rushing TDs (16) in his initial 19 games. In the backfield, running back DeAngelo Williams had a 74-yard TD run in his last meeting with the Falcons. When Williams has 18 or more carries, the team is 15-3 (.833). Fellow running back Jonathan Stewart had a rushing TD in his last game at Atlanta. On the outside, wide receiver Steve Smith had six catches for 125 yards the last time he faced the Falcons and has had four games with at least 125 receiving yards against Atlanta. Another receiver, Brandon LaFell, is averaging 18.2 yards per catch, and, in his last four games against division foes, is averaging 20.4 yards per catch (14 catches, 285 yards). Lastly, tight end Greg Olsen had seven catches for 98 yards last week against New York and had a 44-yard TD catch the last time he met the Falcons. On defense, Atlanta end John Abraham has 114 lifetime sacks, the most among active NFL players. He has eight sacks in his career against Carolina. In the backfield, safety Thomas DeCoud had a pair of interceptions against the Chargers, and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon had a sack the last time he faced the Panthers, as did safety William Moore.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Matt Ryan is unbeaten in home games with Carolina, going 4-0 with a 107.7 passer rating. He leads the NFL with 114.0 rating. In his career when his rating is 100.0 or better, the Falcons are 26-0. Running back Michael Turner has 727 yards (103.9 per game) and 11 TDs his last seven games against the Panthers, including five 100-yard games. He's been especially prolific in two particular games, scoring four rushing TDs in November 2008 and three in a December 2010 game. Since joining Atlanta in 2008, he's fourth in the NFL with 5,435 rush yards and is second with 52 rushing scores. In his last five home games, wide receiver Roddy White has 39 catches for 573 yards (114.6 per game) and four touchdowns, including four 100-yard games. Since 2007, his 490 receptions are the most in the NFC. Meanwhile, in their only meeting with Carolina, wideout Julio Jones had three catches for 104 yards (34.7 avg.) and a 75-yard TD. Canton-bound tight end Tony Gonzalez goes for a fourth game in a row with a touchdown. In his career, he's two TDs short of 100. For the Panthers, safety Charles Godfrey has an interception in each of his first five NFL seasons, totaling 10 in his career. End Charles Johnson has 17 sacks in his past 25 games and tackle Dwan Edwards has 3.5 sacks in three games and aims for a fourth game in a row with at least a half-sack.
Given all the factors - who needs the game more, whose quarterback has more to prove and which team isn't dealing with a pair of arrests to star players in the last two weeks - it'd be easy to lean toward the Panthers to get a paradigm-shifting win. Still, with as high a level as Ryan and Co. are operating on, it's just as difficult to pick against them until they lose. Especially at home.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Panthers 21