CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers both need a win Sunday, albeit for different reasons.
Atlanta is trying to earn a playoff spot, while Carolina's focus is building on a two-game winning streak and carrying the momentum into next season.
The Falcons (7-5) are in the midst of the wild card hunt, tied with Chicago and Detroit for the best record in the conference among non-division leading teams. The New York Giants are right behind at 6-6 fighting for the two wild card spots. For a team many picked before to reach the NFC title game, Sunday's game is big for the Falcons.
"I know they're under a lot of pressure because they are in the thick of the whole thing with everybody watching them," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "They are coming in in a must-win situation."
Falcons coach Mike Smith doesn't need to be reminded. If the Falcons win their last four games, they're assured of a spot in the postseason because they own the tiebreaker over the Lions.
The toughest of the remaining games looks to be a visit to New Orleans on Dec. 26. They also are home to Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
But Smith said the Falcons will have their hands full with rookie quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers (4-8). In the last matchup between the teams, the Panthers led 17-14 entering the fourth quarter before the Falcons scored 17 unanswered points.
Newton threw three interceptions — two in the fourth quarter — and had no touchdown passes, finishing with a quarterback rating of 44.6. Two of his interceptions came off tipped balls.
"They're a completely different team in my mind than what we prepared for in week six," Smith said. "There has been an evolution on the offensive side of the ball and what they're trying to do schematically. And it all revolves around the No. 1 pick at the quarterback position. He's been able to make some phenomenal plays."
Newton ran for three touchdowns and threw for another in last week's 38-19 win over Tampa Bay. His 13 rushing touchdowns are the most in the league and he's converted more third downs with his feet than any player in the league. With Newton at the helm, the Panthers have a league-best 72 plays of 20 yards or more.
"He's something special," said Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton. "He can do things most quarterbacks can't do. He's a very accurate passer, too. He's a true dual threat quarterback."
Atlanta safety William Moore said he's watched Newton on tape in recent weeks and said he's seen a different level of confidence from the Heisman Trophy winner.
"He's definitely more comfortable back there now," said Moore. "The receivers around him are playing great ball right now, and the running backs are carrying their load also. They're a complete team. They're going to get it together despite what their record says."
Newton was limited to 237 yards passing in the first game, but the Falcons won't have cornerback Brent Grimes this time around.
They will, however, have running back Michael Turner. In his last six games against the Panthers, he's averaged 108.5 yards per game and scored 11 touchdowns.
"It starts with stopping him," said linebacker James Anderson.
The Panthers don't have the same pressure as the Falcons, although Rivera has placed a high emphasis on finishing the season strong.
Carolina is playing well of late, particularly on offense where they've scored a combined 100 points in the last three games.
The Panthers are coming off back-to-back wins for the first time since 2009. Granted, they came against two struggling teams in Indianapolis (0-12) and Tampa Bay (4-8), which has dropped six straight.
But Rivera said that doesn't matter.
"We have to get to the point where we can win here, and it doesn't matter who you beat or how or where or when. You just have to win," Rivera said. "And we have done that. Now we have to continue to win and play well and improve. And those things snowball and escalate and give us opportunities to grow. I believe winning is contagious and helps you build your swagger."
Rivera figures the game will be a good measuring stick to see how far the Panthers have come since their Oct. 16 loss to Atlanta at the Georgia Dome. One thing he is sure of is that in order to win, the Panthers have to protect the ball.
In four wins, they've had no turnovers. In eight losses, the Panthers had 19 turnovers.Comment on this story
"Game after game, practice after practice, the game is beginning to slow down," Newton said. "Looking at film from previous weeks, you see a different level of focus now. The penalties that we had earlier in the season, I think we're maturing and not having those penalties. And most importantly, we're protecting the football. That's a statistic that brings W's."
While Carolina's offense seems to be clicking, Atlanta's isn't.
They had only one touchdown in last week's 17-10 loss to the Houston Texans in perhaps their worst offensive showing since a 30-12 loss to Chicago in the season opener.
"We need to start clicking right about now," receiver Roddy White said. "It's almost getting too late. We've gotta stop being up and down and start being more consistent."