Leading a division where every team is .500 or better, the Panthers (8-2) can effectively eliminate the Atlanta Falcons from a shot at first place with a win today.
The Falcons (6-4) are coming off their first home loss of the season, which took a bit of luster off their surprising season. Another setback at the Georgia Dome would leave Atlanta three games behind the Panthers with only five remaining -- effectively a four-game deficit since Carolina would also hold the tiebreaker edge.
"It would be a blow to their season," Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We understand what this game means to the Falcons. We understand how big this game is for them. So we have to keep that in mind when we come out on the field Sunday."
While Atlanta coach Mike Smith did his best to portray the game as nothing more than one of 16, his players know they can't afford another loss to the Panthers. Carolina won the first meeting 24-9 in late September.
"If we want to stay in the playoff picture, we've got to win this game," Falcons receiver Roddy White said. "It's probably going to take 10 wins to get in the playoffs."
Look for plenty of handoffs in this one.
The Falcons are the league's second-ranked running team at 153.4 yards per game, while Carolina checks in sixth with a 133.7-yard average. Last week, the Panthers rushed for a franchise-record 264 yards against woeful Detroit, with Jonathan Stewart (130) and DeAngelo Williams (120) becoming the first pair of backs in team history to rush for more than 100 yards in the same game.
Atlanta's ground game is powered by Michael Turner, who's on the verge of the first 1,000-yard season of his career. He's carried it more than any other back in the league (227 times) and is third with 971 yards, trailing only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Washington's Clinton Portis.
"There's not a lot of guys like him in the NFL," Carolina linebacker Na'il Diggs said. "I wouldn't have expected him to play as well as he has. I think they're doing a great job in Atlanta as far as the offense goes of getting him the ball and letting him just run down the middle, which is what he likes to do. He's not one of those scat guys."
No, that would be speedy Jerious Norwood, who's rushed for 383 yards and also is an effective weapon as a pass receiver with 24 receptions, including a 67-yard touchdown two weeks ago.
"They're good at mixing up plays for Norwood and Turner," Diggs said. "They're two different type of styles and we've got to go into this game prepared for both types of running backs."
While Atlanta is definitely a run-first offense, the coaches are showing more and more confidence in quarterback Matt Ryan. The rookie didn't throw for 200 yards in any of his first five games, which included a 158-yard effort at Carolina that matches his season low. But he's opened things up the past five games, averaging 259 yards passing.
"Ryan looks like a five-year vet back there," Peppers said.
The Panthers had their way in the first game against Atlanta.
Ryan completed only 21 of 41 passes and was sacked twice. Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme had what is still his highest-rated game of the season, completing 20 of 29 for 294 yards.
He hasn't been quite as sharp in the past two games as he was earlier in the season, though it didn't matter with the Panthers going against Oakland and Detroit.
Delhomme was 7 of 27 with four interceptions against the Raiders. A week ago, he completed 10 of 19 for 98 yards against the Lions.