ATLANTA — One year ago, the Falcons dominated the NFC South with 13 wins and Carolina finished six games back, in a three-way tie at 7-9.
This year, Atlanta is on the short end of the comparison as Carolina is on the verge of winning the division.
Asked what he sees as the difference in Carolina this year, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said “confidence.”
The Panthers (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South title, first-round bye, No. 2 seed and a home playoff game by beating the Falcons on Sunday.
“The work is not done,” said Panthers safety Mike Mitchell. “We are in the playoffs, but it’s not time to relax.”
Carolina could land the NFC’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage through the playoffs if it beats Atlanta, San Francisco defeats Arizona and St. Louis upsets Seattle.
“I think they’ve won some close ballgames and confidence begins to build,” Ryan said. “It’s contagious.”
There has never been a team to repeat as NFC South champion since the debut of the division in 2002. This year the Falcons have taken a sharp fall from the top to a 4-11 record, good for a last-place tie with Tampa Bay.
Ryan said the Falcons’ disappointing season would end on a good note if star tight end Tony Gonzalez could walk off the Georgia Dome field as a winner.
“I think guys know that we want to send him out with a win,” Ryan said. “We’d love to be able to do that. We’d love to see him play well and go away with a win.”
The Panthers have won with defense. The unit is led by linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly, who each had interceptions in last week’s win over New Orleans. Kuechly had 24 tackles against the Saints, tied for the most in the NFL since 1994.
Here are five things to watch as the Falcons try to spoil the Panthers’ clinching the NFC South:
CONTAINING JACKSON: Atlanta’s Steven Jackson has six touchdowns rushing, and all have come in the last five games, including three the last two weeks. Jackson’s long-awaited surge following his early-season hamstring injury has given the Falcons confidence he can still be the team’s lead running back in 2014. This will be his last chance for his first 100-yard game of the season.
WIN FOR GONZALEZ: Gonzalez, 37, is retiring with more catches than any tight end in history. He trails only Jerry Rice in career catches. Gonzalez has enjoyed another strong year, leading the Falcons with 79 catches and eight touchdowns. He postponed retirement after the 2012 season in hopes the Falcons could make another run at the Super Bowl.
THIRD-DOWN WOES: The Panthers were 0 for 9 on third downs in last week’s win over the Saints. “That’s something we have to get corrected,” coach Ron Rivera said.
For the season, Carolina ranks fourth in the league with its 43.5 percent success on third down.
NO STEVE SMITH: Carolina veteran receiver Steve Smith is expected to miss the game with a sprained left knee but could return for the playoffs.
“He’s highly doubtful for this week, but it will be week to week,” said coach Ron Rivera. “There’s a lot of good news there.”
Ted Ginn Jr. is expected to start in Smith’s spot, and Domenik Hixon should be another key target for Cam Newton. Each had big catches on Carolina’s winning drive against the Saints.
OLSEN LIKES FACING FALCONS: Olsen has five touchdown catches in seven career games against Atlanta, more than he has had against any other team. He had four catches for 66 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown, in the Panthers’ 34-10 win over the Falcons on Nov. 3.