With the NFC South secured, the Atlanta Falcons have their sights set on the best record in the conference as they get ready to visit Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
The Falcons, who will be aiming for a sixth consecutive win over Carolina, made a statement in their last game on Nov. 29, picking off New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees five times and ending his remarkable consecutive games streak with a touchdown pass at 54 in a 23-13 victory over the Saints at the Georgia Dome.
That win coupled with Tampa Bay's loss in Denver three days later clinched the top spot in the NFC South for the second time in the past three seasons for the 11-1 Falcons.
"You never want to take it lightly because it's hard to do," Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan said of winning the division. "At the same time, we talk all the time that this is one step in the process and we've got more stairs to climb and hopefully we're able to do that. We need to focus on the next thing."
That next thing for Atlanta is the best record in the NFC, The Falcons have a commanding 2 1/2-game lead over San Francisco for the best record in the conference with just four games to play and could conceivably clinch a first- round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win Sunday and a few other dominos falling.
"It's something we want to work towards," Ryan said. "At this point, our focus has to be on just knocking one more win off this week. Eventually, when we look up maybe at the end of the season we'll have enough to get that done. We'll worry about it right then."
Ryan completed 18-of-33 passes for 165 yards with a touchdown against the Saints as the Falcons avenged their lone loss of the season and snapped a four-game skid to New Orleans.
"That was a really good win for our football team. I felt our defense played a tremendous game," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who has led his team to the postseason in four of five seasons.
The Panthers, meanwhile, fell in an almost surreal contest in their last counter, a 27-21 setback in Kansas City.
A day after linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot his girlfriend before taking his own life at the team's facility, the Chiefs resiliently took the field and downed Carolina, ending their eight-game slide.
Newton completed 15-of-27 passes for 232 yards and three scores, while adding 78 yards on the ground for the Panthers, who are just 3-9 on the season.
"They played an inspired football game," Carolina head coach Ron Rivera said of the Chiefs. "They did some really good things, and we have to give them credit, because they suffered through a very difficult time."
Atlanta leads its all-time series with the Panthers 23-12, including a 30-28 thriller back on Sept. 30 at the Georgia Dome.
Roddy White caught eight passes for 169 yards and two TDs in that one and the Falcons drove 77 yards in five plays late before Falcons kicker Matt Bryant won it with a 40-yard FG with just five seconds remaining.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Ryan remains an MVP candidate although he has slowed a bit in recent weeks so Atlanta will be intent on getting its explosive offense, which is seventh in NFL at 26.4 points per game, going again.
The Panthers defense, which allows 347.8 yards per game, has struggled mightily against the Falcons recently, allowing at least 30 points in each game of the team's five-game losing streak against Atlanta.
Ryan, particularly, has had his way, throwing for 10 touchdowns versus just one interceptions with a 110.9 passer rating over his last four against Carolina. Running back Michael Turner, who had a touchdown last week and is the franchise's all-time leader with 58 total TDs, has also excelled against the Panthers, averaging nearly 100 yards per game with seven TDs in the last five games in the series.
Meanwhile, Carolina has given up an average of 30.0 points per game in their last three losses and things figure to get even tougher since the team lost defensive end Antwan Applewhite (hamstring) and free safety Sherrod Martin (torn MCL/ACL) to season-ending injuries over the past week.
For the Panthers on offense its all about the explosive Newton, who has suffered through a sophomore slump for much of the season, but is still one of the NFL's most explosive players. Newton has eight touchdowns -- six passing and two rushing -- over his last three games.
"His outlook on things, the way he perceives things and the way he's handled himself the last few weeks has been outstanding," Rivera said. "He's played very well and given us chances to win. We have to take advantage of that."
Smith seems particularly worried about Newton's effectiveness as a runner.
"He's hard to bring down," the Falcons coach said. "They can run him on quarterback isolations. They can run him on the read-option. They can run him on quarterback sweeps and that doesn't even count the times he takes off and scrambles when he drops back to pass. He's a guy that you've got to account for in the run game."
At this stage its all about positioning for the playoffs for the frontrunning Falcons. Atlanta hasn't won a postseason game since 2004 and has lost in the first round three consecutive times so it will want to do everything possible over the final month to get ready for the playoffs.
"I've tried to keep that week-to-week focus, but at the same time, we've had some sour tastes in our mouths at the end of the last couple of seasons," Ryan said. "So hopefully we'll have an opportunity to change that."
For Carolina the priorities are different with themes like fighting, staying together and playing spoiler at the forefront.
"It is about trying to win these football games and trending up. That's pretty much it," Rivera said. "We've got an opportunity to play Atlanta and later to play New Orleans and those are opportunities to send messages and show what we can do. That's why we're playing, and we'll go out and play hard."
The Panthers are generally very competitive with seven losses of six points or less in 2012 but they have trouble closing and expect that fatal flaw to continue on Sunday.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 30, Panthers 21