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, this is a big game 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 next 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.
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 in a row.
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.”
While Carolina’s offense seems to be clicking, Atlanta’s isn’t.
The Falcons 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.”