NFL Expert Picks Against the Spread: Carolina Panthers at Atlanta Falcons
Well, the NFL pulled a fast one on us all. I fully expected the Week 17 Panthers-Falcons matchup to be flexed from 1 p.m. ET to the Sunday night game. So did just about every member of both teams. It was clearly the marquee matchup of the final day of the regular season with playoff ramifications for both. Really, the only other option was probably Jacksonville-Tennessee, and that's just not nationally sexy like Panthers-Falcons would be with two former NFL MVPs and the past two Super Bowl runners-up facing off.
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In a big surprise, the NFL will not have a Sunday night game in Week 17. It will be the first time the regular season didn't end with a night game, either on Sunday or Monday, in 40 years. This game was shifted from 1 p.m. ET to the 4:25 p.m. window. Saints-Bucs also was moved to the same spot because that one is relevant to Panthers-Falcons. On CBS, Bengals-Ravens, Bills-Dolphins and Jaguars-Titans also were moved to 4:25 p.m. because those games are intertwined from a playoff perspective.
"We felt that both from a competitive standpoint and from a fan perspective, the most fair thing to do is to schedule all Week 17 games in either the 1 p.m. or 4:25 p.m. ET windows," said NFL Senior Vice President of Broadcasting Howard Katz. "This ensures that we do not have a matchup on Sunday Night Football on New Year's Eve that because of earlier results has no playoff implications for one or both of the competing teams."
The NFC South is the only division that hasn't crowned its champion. That will be New Orleans (11-4) should it win as a 7.5-point favorite at nothing-to-play-for Tampa Bay. The Saints can only get as high as the No. 3 seed, though, so they will be playing on wild-card weekend. They'd also win the South with a loss as long as Carolina (11-4) loses. That's because the Saints hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Panthers are in the playoffs but can't be the No. 1 seed or the No. 6 seed. They obviously win the division with a victory and Saints loss. Carolina gets the No. 2 seed with a win, a Saints loss to the Buccaneers, a Rams loss to the 49ers and a Vikings loss to the Bears. To get No. 3, the Panthers must win, have the Saints lose and either the Rams or Vikings to lose. For No. 4, it's a win, Saints lose and Rams and Vikings victory. Should New Orleans win or Carolina lose, the Panthers will be the No. 5 seed and visit most likely the Saints next weekend - possibly the Rams.
It's very simple for defending NFC South and conference champion Atlanta (9-6). If it wins, it's the No. 6 seed and probably goes to the Rams on wild-card weekend. The Falcons also go with a loss as long as Seattle loses at home to Arizona, which is very unlikely. Remember, no Super Bowl loser has gotten back to the game the next season since those Bills teams in the early 1990s lost four straight Super Bowls.
Panthers at Falcons Betting Story Lines
Neither of these teams played very well in Week 16. Carolina won its third straight game - all by a touchdown or fewer - with a 22-19 squeaker over a bad Bucs team in Charlotte. The Panthers allowed 392 yards of offense (Jameis Winston had a passer rating of 131.1 that was the second-highest of his career) and managed just 255. Cam Newton was very fortunate to recover his own fumble and dart in from 2 yards out with 35 seconds left. Two plays prior, the Panthers faced a fourth-and-3 at the Tampa Bay 5 but got a huge break when Bucs defensive tackle Chris Baker stupidly jumped offsides. Halfway to the goal line made it fourth-and-1 and Jonathan Stewart got the first down.
Newton's score was Carolina's lone TD on five red-zone trips. He threw for only 160 yards and a pick. Rookie Christian McCaffrey was a non-factor. On the bright side, the Panthers held the Bucs to one touchdown on six red-zone drivers. Over the last six games, Carolina leads the NFL with a defensive red zone TD percentage of 35 (7-for-20). The Panthers are now 7-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Last year, they went 2-6.
If the Falcons fail to make the playoffs, Coach Dan Quinn is safe but first-year offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian absolutely isn't. Yet again, that unit looked nothing like it did last season in Sunday's 23-13 loss in New Orleans - the Falcons are 0-6 when they don't score at least 20 points. They were held to 67 yards rushing, and Matt Ryan was sacked five times and threw another pick. The Falcons averaged a league-high 33.8 points per game a year ago with Kyle Shanahan as the offensive coordinator but are now down to 22.1. Some regression was expected, but not like this. Devonta Freeman suddenly has become fumble-prone and lost one at the Saints 1.
Panthers at Falcons Betting Odds and Trends
At 5Dimes , Atlanta is a 4-point favorite with a total of 46. On the moneyline, the Falcons are -205 and Panthers +173. No alternate lines yet, but you can presume what they will look like. Carolina is 9-6 against the spread (5-2 on road) and 9-6 "over/under" (4-3 on road). Atlanta is 6-9 ATS (4-3 at home) and 5-10 O/U (2-5 at home).
The Panthers are 7-2 ATS in their past nine following an ATS loss. They are 3-8 ATS in their previous 11 vs. the NFC South. The Falcons are 2-5 ATS in their past seven after an ATS loss. The over is 5-1 in Carolina's past six. The under is 5-2-1 in it past eight vs. the NFC South. The under is 7-1 in Atlanta's past eight after scoring less than 15 points in its previous game. The under is 7-1-1 in the previous nine meetings. The home team has covered eight of the previous 10.
Panthers at Falcons Betting Prediction
In Week 9, the Panthers were short home dogs but beat the Falcons 20-17. Newton threw for just 137 yards but his arm wasn't needed much as Carolina rushed for 201 yards and two scores - one by Newton - on 38 carries. Ryan threw for 313 with two scores and a pick, but the Falcons, who led 10-0 after a quarter, had only 53 yards rushing.
I'd almost like to bet this game at halftime instead of beforehand. If the Panthers are made aware, for example, that the Saints are up 21 points on the Bucs in that simultaneous game, then Carolina could simply mail it in the second half. But, I'll take a 2.5-point alternate line and back the desperate Falcons. Go under the total. Something like 23-20 - Atlanta squeaks past that 20-point magic number.
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Read more articles by Alan Matthews
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