While Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are rolling, the same can't be said for Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons.
Newton and the Panthers will try to add to the Falcons' woes while earning a fourth consecutive win Sunday.
Carolina (4-3) is above .500 for the first time since going 12-4 in 2008, the year it most recently made the playoffs or finished ahead of Atlanta in the NFC South - during Ryan's rookie season. The Panthers have gotten there by scoring 30 or more points in each of the last three games.
Newton has a 77.3 completion percentage and a 130.3 passer rating during the win streak - both best in the NFL over the past three weeks - while throwing for 667 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions. He was 23 of 32 for 221 yards and two TDs last Thursday in Tampa Bay, and ran for a season-high 50 yards with another score in a 31-13 victory over the winless Buccaneers.
Carolina's last three opponents have a combined 4-18 record, and Atlanta (2-5) has lost four of five. That seemingly favorable stretch for the Panthers, however, is followed by matchups with San Francisco and New England, both currently 6-2.
"We just have to continue to keep meshing as a team, keep building off and keep getting momentum in these upcoming weeks because we are about to hit the meat of our schedule," Newton said. "We are going to need every single ounce of energy that we will have."
The Falcons haven't looked very energized, recording their lowest point total since the 2011 season in a 27-13 loss in Arizona last Sunday. Ryan threw four interceptions, one shy of a career high, and was sacked a season-high four times.
Atlanta, 0-3 on the road, was playing its second game since leading receiver Julio Jones' season-ending foot injury. Fellow wideout Roddy White has missed the past two games with hamstring and ankle injuries.
White, a four-time Pro Bowl selection, returned to practice for the first time in over three weeks on Friday and is listed as questionable. He has 24 catches for 370 yards and four touchdowns in his last three games against Carolina.
The Falcons were held under 300 total yards and 30 on the ground for the second straight game last Sunday despite the return of Steven Jackson from a hamstring injury. Jackson gained six yards on 11 carries, in part leading to Ryan throwing a career-high 61 passes.
"There's no doubt about it, we've gotta run the ball more effectively," Ryan said. "... I've gotta be more efficient as a passer to help our run game."
The Atlanta offense may struggle to have a better performance against the Panthers' stout defense. Carolina is among the league's best with 13.7 points and 301.4 yards allowed per game, and has the second-stingiest run defense (79.3 ypg).
"We feel like we are headed toward (being) a serious playoff defense," said defensive end Greg Hardy, who had one of Carolina's three sacks last week. "I feel like we're playing up to our potential, but there is so much potential in the room. We're not even close."
The Falcons, meanwhile, haven't given up fewer than 23 points in any game this season and have forced an NFC-low six turnovers. They've particularly struggled to stop the run lately, allowing 562 yards on the ground in the last four games and a season-high 201 in Arizona.
"We haven't been consistent in anything we've done in seven games," coach Mike Smith said. "That's the entire football team, the entire coaching staff, and we all take responsibility for it."
Atlanta is off to its worst start since going 1-6 to begin 2007 after opening 8-0 last year en route to a 13-3 record and the NFC championship game.
The Panthers dealt their division rival one of those losses in the last meeting, 30-20 in Charlotte on Dec. 9 to snap a five-game losing streak in the series.
Newton's career-long 72-yard run gave his team a 23-0 lead early in the third quarter, and he finished with a personal-best 116 rushing yards while passing for 287 and two touchdowns. Newton ran for a combined 202 yards and two TDs against Atlanta last year.
Ryan has totaled 1,031 passing yards and nine touchdowns in his last three games against Carolina.
The Panthers activated running back Jonathan Stewart from the physically unable to perform list Saturday. He hasn't played since last November when he first injured his ankle.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved