Carolina Panthers vs Atlanta Falcons preview: Falcons aim to clinch playoff berth against bitter rivals
Carolina Panthers vs Atlanta Falcons preview: Falcons aim to clinch playoff berth against bitter rivals

The Atlanta Falcons will travel to Carolina on Christmas Eve with a chance to seal a trip to the playoffs. On the other hand, the Carolina Panthers are all but out of the playoff race but will be aiming to play spoiler and put even more pressure on the NFC South leaders.

A win for Atlanta on Saturday would see them secure a playoff spot based on having the strength of victory tiebreaker over the Detroit Lions. They could also clinch the division title with a win and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers loss.

Injury Report

Carolina Panthers: All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly hasn't suited up for the Panthers since suffering a concussion against the New Orleans Saints on November 17th. He was cleared from the concussion protocol last weekend but was held out of Carolina's win on Monday Night Football. His status for Saturday's divisional game is still up in the air.

Cam Newton and Kelvin Benjamin were both limited in practice on Wednesday but will play. Meanwhile, Greg Olsen did not participate in practice this week due to an elbow problem but Olsen is expected to be ready to face Atlanta. Mario Addison is also questionable on Saturday.

Atlanta Falcons: Julio Jones missed the last two games due to a toe sprain and Atlanta excelled without their superstar. Jones was back at practice this week and head coach Dan Quinn confirmed his return will be on Saturday to face the team he torched in Week 4. 

The Falcons will also welcome back Adrian Clayborn after the defensive lineman missed the last three weeks due to a partially torn meniscus. This will be a  huge boost for Atlanta's pass rush against the ever-tricky Cam Newton.

Wide receiver Taylor Gabriel and cornerback Jalen Collins were limited on Wednesday but will be fine for Saturday. Tight end Austin Hooper did not practice this week after suffering a knee injury in the win over the San Francisco 49ers and has been ruled out for the Week 16 matchup.

Linebacker De'Vondre Campbell will also miss the Christmas Eve game because of a concussion.

What to Watch For

Julio Jones has missed the last two games but still leads the NFL with 1,253 receiving yard. A large chunk of those yards came in a Week 4 meeting with the Carolina Panthers as Jones dropped 300 yards and a TD on Carolina's secondary. Since that meeting, Carolina's pass defense has improved slightly but Jones will be looking to mark his return with a big performance.

Julio Jones (#11) erupted for 300 yards and a TD on 12 catches back in Week 4. (Source: Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)
Julio Jones (#11) erupted for 300 yards and a TD on 12 catches back in Week 4 | Source: Rainier Ehrhardt - AP Photo

Devonta Freeman erupted for 139 yards and 3 TDs last Sunday but faces a tough front seven in Carolina, who are giving up just 85.8 yards per game on the ground. Freeman's tough running and ability to make players miss will be coupled with Tevin Coleman's speed and agility, giving Carolina plenty to deal with.

Ted Ginn Jr. is averaging 65 yards receiving over his last five games and has four TDs in that same span. Ginn's big play ability will certainly worry a weak Atlanta secondary. On the other hand, Greg Olsen is just eight yards away from a 1,000-yard receiving season and Atlanta is notoriously poor against tight ends. Olsen should find himself with plenty of targets on Saturday against the team he dropped 76 yards and a touchdown on in Week 4.

Plenty at Stake

The Carolina Panthers would need a Christmas miracle to occur for them to reach the playoffs at this point (less than a one percent chance). A loss on Saturday would condemn them to a losing season, making them the first team since 2007 to reach the Super Bowl and finish with a losing record the following season. 

Last week, the Falcons secured their first winning season in four years and could clinch both a playoff spot and the division title with a win on Saturday. A win would also officially eliminate the Panthers from playoff contention. 

Plenty of pride is at stake after the Falcons dominated proceedings in Week 4. Atlanta are hoping to complete the sweep of their rivals while Carolina looks to finish strong and spoil the fun.