Atlanta Falcons (9-5 SU, 9-5 ATS) vs. Carolina Panthers (5-8 SU, 4-8-1 ATS)
Week 16 NFL
Date/Time: Saturday, December 24, 2016 at 1PM EST
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, North Carolina
By Loot, NFL Football Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
Betting Odds: ATL -2.5/CAR +2.5
Over/Under Total: 52
The Atlanta Falcons take on the Carolina Panthers on Saturday in a big NFC South matchup. For the Panthers, it's curtains as far as the postseason goes, but some recent performances suggest they haven't packed it in yet. On Monday Night Football, they beat the Washington Redskins, 26-15, and have won 5 of their last 8 games. The Falcons scored a nice 41-13 win over the 49ers on Sunday to go to 9-5, with a tenuous first-place lead in the division. But with Tampa hot on their heels and a problematic-looking wild card picture, Atlanta needs to keep posting wins to keep their postseason hopes on-track.
The Falcons are getting a break with their late-season schedule, but they're at least taking care of business. After a tough 29-28 loss to Kansas City in a cruel twist, they have resoundingly beaten the Rams and Niners by the combined score of 83-27. And with Carolina and New Orleans remaining on the schedule, their path to the postseason is an easier one than most face. In the Georgia Dome on October 2 in week four action, the Falcons beat the Panthers, 48-33. Matt Ryan put up 503 yards against this bunch, with Julio Jones going for 300 yards through the air. Cam Newton was knocked out of that game, but the Panthers still put up some offense and it was a one-possession game late in the 4th until Atlanta's Robert Alford returned a Derek Anderson pass for a touchdown.
Atlanta can run the ball and get it going through the air, as they are the league's top-scoring team. Ryan has 4336 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just 7 picks. He's completing passes at a better than 68% clip. Most impressive perhaps about this Atlanta offense is how diverse they've become, with any number of different contributors who can produce. Devonta Freeman was huge on Sunday with 139 yards on the ground with three scores. Tevin Coleman added 58 yards, while Terron Ward added another 52. With Julio Jones missing his second straight game, some of their aerial depth surfaced again, with Aldrick Robinson leading ball-catchers with 111 yards. Taylor Gabriel (questionable) hauled in a TD grab, as Mohamed Sanu got back into the mix with some nice catches. There is ample room for a lot of different players to shine in this offense. They could be getting Jones back, who despite missing two games, still leads the league in receiving yards.
The prolific nature of the offense has taken some of the attention off the defense, but let's face it--they're a pretty leaky bunch for a first-place team. They're ranked 25th in total defense and in points allowed. They are the 30th-ranked rushing defense in the league. On Sunday, Vic Beasley had another sack, giving him 14.5 on the season. They've scored 5 touchdowns on the season and can get turnovers. For all their leakiness, they can at least change the game with a big play here and there. But they did struggle with this very Carolina team in their first game this season, with their defense helping bail them out with a late pick-six. So there's good and bad on this side of the ball.
Granted, this season has gone far off the script for the Panthers. From top to bottom, it's been a disappointment. Both sides of the ball have depreciated dramatically from last season's conference championship form. But they are showing signs of life. On MNF, facing a Washington team that was trying to pumps some life into their postseason cause, the Panthers were in charge for most of the game, holding the Redskins to 15 points. Both sides of the ball played well and it's clear that despite their predicament, the Panthers haven't folded up their tents and gone home mentally.
Cam Newton, in the midst of a tough season, has stayed positive lately and he threw for 300 yards on MNF. Tight end Greg Olsen (questionable) was again productive, with surging Ted Ginn catching another TD pass, along with Mike Tolbert, who also hauled in a TD grab. Jonathan Stewart ran for 132 yards and in many ways, the offense looked a lot like it did last season. It's been a long year and they still continue to submit the occasional clunker from time to time, but they're still in there trying and showed they can still be effective on Monday.
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The Carolina defense has also taken a step back this season. They've just been wildly inconsistent and injuries haven't helped. Against the Redskins on Monday, they looked like the defense of old, a group that played a huge role in getting the Panthers as far as they had gotten. But in a slew of games this season, they are far from being a good defense. They've given up just 31 combined points in the last two games and appear to at least be finishing the season in strong fashion. Their pass-defense is a shadow of what it was last season, ranked dead-last in the league. But despite giving up over 300 to Kirk Cousins, they still managed to hold the Redskins to just 15 points.
Atlanta's position is far from stable, though they have a one-game lead on the Bucs. They need to keep winning, but face a more-difficult test than some may imagine in this game in Charlotte. They're on the road, but are 5-2 away from home this season. And while the Panthers might not be in the playoff picture, it didn't stop them from beating a team that was still in it in their last game. I see a tight game, with Atlanta getting it done in the end in what might be a close game.
Loot's Prediction to Cover the Point Spread: I'm betting on the Atlanta Falcons minus 2.5 points. Tired of your credit card not working for sportsbook deposit? End that problem today and bet the Atlanta vs. Carolina game from the comfort of your own home by signing up at Bovada Sportsbook where your credit card WILL work and where you'll receive a generous 100% sign-up bonus!