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In last years Super Bowl loss to the Broncos, the offensive line played poorly. That has not changed so far this season as the Panthers have given up 12 sacks through three games and QB Cam Newton has been hit numerous other times as the protection has been extremely shaky. That shouldn’t be as big a concern against a Falcons defense that has recorded only three sacks while allowing an average of 313 passing games and 433 total yards per game. Carolina would like to get the running game led by Cameron Artis-Payne going early with Jonathan Stewart (hamstring) expected to be sidelined for a second consecutive week and the Panthers facing an NFL-high 31 third-and-6 or longer situations. The Falcons are also allowing 4.7 yards per carry, so getting off the field will likely prove a challenge. The key is the Panthers offensive line being able to pass block against the Falcons and with Stewart out of the lineup I believe the Falcons will control the Panthers running game.

Atlanta enters with the league’s top-ranked scoring offense at 34.7 points per game and has a plethora of playmakers in the running and passing games. Carolina’s defense should prove the stiffest test to date, however, and look for coordinator Kyle Shanahan to get RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman involved early in an effort to help protect the defense. Atlanta is averaging 5.0 yards per carry, and the tandem has also combined for 19 receptions. QB Matt Ryan clearly feels more comfortable in his second year in Shanahan’s system, and has already connected with 11 different receivers. That type of depth and ability to strike underneath and over the top will stress Carolina’s secondary.

MATCHUP TO WATCH:

Falcons TE Jacob Tamme vs. Panthers Ss Tre Boston/Kurt Coleman: Tamme enters as Atlanta’s leading receiver with 14 catches for 154 yards and a touchdown. He’s not fleet of foot, but is a reliable route-runner with the ability to move the chains with opponents so heavily focused on WR Julio Jones. Carolina’s linebackers also figure to see coverage duties against Tamme. With Tamme playing well it just adds another dimension to the Falcons already explosive attack.

PREDICTION: The Falcons are revving on all cylinders offensively and are particularly explosive at home, but Carolina is a different animal than Tampa Bay, Oakland or New Orleans. The reigning NFC champs are 1-2 and highly motivated not to drop a key divisional road game. QB Cam Newton leads an offense that should steadily move the chains and keep the pressure up against the league’s 30th-ranked defense. On the other hand, the Panthers offensive line has been exposed all year, and I think this game will be no different. The Falcons make a major statement early in the season here and get the win. Atlanta 27  Panthers 24