While the Seattle Seahawks need to beat the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday to make the playoffs, it is only 50-percent of the equation needed for them to get a 17th game. Just as important as them winning is the Atlanta Falcons losing. Though the Seahawks somehow managed to avoid a game against the Carolina Panthers in 2017, they’re still pinning their hopes to the performance of Cam Newton.
This week, we are all Cam fans.
Though the games are being played simultaneously, a lot of people have expressed concern with the fact that the New Orleans Saints are facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and if the Saints win, the Panthers’ efforts to win the NFC South become moot. If Ron Rivera sees that New Orleans is blowing out Tampa, will he pull his starters to save them for the wild card round? Perhaps.
But I find it highly unlikely that the Saints-Bucs game will have much of an effect on the outcome of Carolina-Atlanta game.
First of all, the Panthers still have to prepare all week like they’re playing for the division title and a home game in the playoffs. There’s no avoiding that — Carolina, Rivera, Cam, every Panther, is preparing to beat the Falcons like Atlanta is the one thing between them and having to go on the road in a week.
Second of all, you have to then assume that the Saints will blow out the Bucs to such a degree that even at halftime, players are starting to be pulled from both games. I don’t see that happening because those games are already very rare, especially when accounting for the fact that this is intra-divisional and Week 17 — Dirk Koetter has nothing left to coach for except one more victory in 2017 and a bit more assurance that his job is safe. What score would New Orleans need to pull it’s starters? A 21-point lead? Even that’s not good enough unless its mid-to-late fourth quarter. What score would the Bucs need to see to pull its starters? Probably no such score exists.
If the Saints and Bucs aren’t pulling their starters, why would the Panthers, a team that is playing in an entirely different state from that game? I think Carolina would need 100% assurance that New Orleans is going to win their game and those moments rarely come before the fourth quarter; in fact, the Saints know better than any team this year to never assume the game is over.
In Week 6, the Saints led the Detroit Lions 45-10 midway through the third quarter. Midway through the fourth quarter, the Lions were only down 45-38. New Orleans is playing to clinch the NFC South, it is very unlikely that they are pulling any starters. The Bucs have split the season series in each of the last two years and as bad as they have been this season, have lost their last four games by three points, three points, three points, and in OT. They have three other losses by five points or less.
That takes care of one issue for me when people say “Carolina might not have anything to play for.” Even if that does become true, I don’t think it will be evident early enough in the games for it to matter to the Panthers. They’re coming to beat the Atlanta Falcons.
Here are some other reasons why I think the Falcons will leave the door open for the Seahawks to get back into the playoffs:
- After a 3-0 start, the Falcons are just 6-6.
- Atlanta is just 4-3 at home.
- The offense is averaging just 16.5 points per game over the last four games.
- The Panthers have forced 10 turnovers in the last three weeks, all wins. Carolina has won seven of their last eight games.
- The Falcons are 3-2 when they turn the ball over multiple times, a trend that is so rare that surely they are due for another loss when having that many giveaways.
- Atlanta has six wins by six points or less.
- The Falcons have lost the last three games in which Matt Ryan was sacked at least twice. The Panthers have 49 sacks, third-most in the NFL. That’s 11 sacks by Julius Peppers, 10.5 for Mario Addison, and 7.5 by Kawann Short.
- Since losing Pro Bowl guard Andy Levitre to a triceps injury just 10 snaps into Week 13, the Falcons have struggled offensively; that’s when their 16.5 ppg slide started, Ryan’s been sacked seven times, thrown four interceptions, Tevin Coleman has 23 carries for 66 yards, and Julio Jones has failed to score.
- When the Falcons get multiple sacks, they are 8-3, compared to 1-3 when they don’t. The Panthers are 10-2 when Cam Newton is sacked three or fewer times; when the two teams met earlier this season, Newton was sacked just once. Carolina is 5-0 when Newton is sacked 0 or 1 times. Left tackle Matt Kalil has been really inconsistent, but in games against the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, allowed zero pressures. The Falcons are tied for 14th in sacks, with eight of those coming against the Tyron Smith-less Dallas Cowboys.
- Carolina had 13 turnovers in their first seven games, going 4-3. They have six turnovers in their last eight games, going 7-1. The Falcons are ranked 30th in takeaways, don’t have a single game this season with more than two takeaways, and they’ve forced just one turnover in their last three home games.
- Teams are 3-0 in the three best rushing games against Atlanta and 1-6 when rushing for under 100 yards. The team that had the best rushing game agains the Falcons? The Panthers rushed for 201 yards and two touchdowns in their 20-17 win. Since Game 9, Carolina has rushed for an NFL-best 1,234 yards and 5.25 yards per carry, including 11 touchdowns.
- A big part of that success comes with the progress of Christian McCaffrey; beginning with their win over the Falcons, McCaffrey has rushed for 304 yards and caught 26 passes for 233 yards in his last seven games. That includes 4.9 YPC, 8.9 yards/catch, and five touchdowns. At a full season pace, that would put McCaffrey at over 1,200 total yards and 12 touchdowns.
- Carolina’s only loss in the second half of the season came to the Saints. They beat the Falcons. They blew out the Dolphins. They beat the Vikings. And then they beat Aaron Rodgers and ended his/the Packers’ season.
- The Panthers are still alive for the number two seed.
- The Falcons are tied for last in interceptions, with five. They’ve allowed 21 touchdowns, five picks, and a rating of 95.9. The Raiders have allowed 21 touchdowns, five interceptions, and they fired their defensive coordinator. It’s more than fair to say that Dan Quinn’s third season in Atlanta has not had the same defensive results as Pete Carroll’s third season in Seattle.
- The Falcons are just sort of a “chokey” team. They went 14-2 in 1998 and then in the second half of the Super Bowl, went from down 17-6 to down 31-6 in a matter of moments. The next time they made the playoffs was 2002, and they got shutout in the second half of divisional loss to the Eagles. They made it back to the playoffs in 2004, getting shutout in the second half of the NFC Championship against the Eagles again. The next time they made the playoffs was 2008, getting outscored 16-2 in a 30-24 wild card loss to the Cardinals. In 2009, they started the season 4-1 and missed the playoffs. In 2010, they went 13-3 but got blown out 48-21 at home in the divisional round to the Packers, scoring just seven second half points. In 2011, they scored two points in a wild card loss to the Giants. In 2012, they led the 49ers 17-0 and 24-14, but scored zero points in the second half of the game and lost the NFC Championship. Of course, that only happened after they blew a 27-7 fourth quarter lead to Seattle, barely coming back to avoid an official choke. In 2015, they started 5-0 and 6-1, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs. Then 28-3 happened.
This season, Atlanta started 3-0. Then they led the Bills, and lost. Next they led the Dolphins 17-0, and ended up losing. They led the Panthers 10-0, then lost. They led the Seahawks 21-7, and nearly blew the lead. They led the Bucs 27-6, and backup Ryan Fitzpatrick was a fourth-and-one in the red zone conversion away from potentially tying the game in the fourth quarter. They led the Vikings 9-7 after three quarters, and lost. Now the Falcons lead the wild card and there’s one moment left for them to go. We’ve seen how Atlanta has typically responded to those challenges. Will Dan Quinn have them ready for a “win and in” situation against a better team that also wants to win? Maybe.
But if there was a 9-6 team that Seattle needed to lose in order to advance, the Falcons would not be a franchise that I’d avoid picking in situations like this one.