If one is trying to understand why the NFL reigns supreme in the national sports landscape then look no further than this game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers. Six weeks ago this game was billed as a blowout with the dominant NFC regular season champions poised to demolish the cellar dwelling Carolina Panthers, but now the fortunes of both teams has lead to a line in this game only giving Atlanta a 3.5 point edge in Sunday's game.
This is astonishing because the Falcons are at home, meaning Vegas only has faith in them to beat the Panthers by what equates to a half point (imagining this was played on a neutral field). An unsure injury situation surrounding Julio Jones, coupled with a Panthers team that played the New Orleans Saints down to the wire has ensured this game which was once an easy W, is no longer regarded as so easy.
Perhaps some of this 3.5 point line can be attributed to a gross under-estimation of Carolina thus far in 2011. Across their five games the Panthers are 4-0-1 against the spread as they continue to play close games amounting to an average loss of just 5.5 points. Meanwhile the Atlanta Falcons have been lackluster in terms of their spread with games like Seattle where Atlanta were pegged to blow out Seattle, only to leave the door open.
Sunday's game will be decided by quarterback play. Matt Ryan has under-performed expectations in 2011 as he's thrown 7 touchdowns to 6 interceptions, while Panthers' QB Cam Newton has vastly exceeded them as a rookie, throwing for the same number of scores and picks as Ryan. Ultimately I think the Falcons win, but it's going to be close, so I would take the Panthers plus the points.
When it comes to over/under we're looking at a line of 51 points. Neither the Falcons nor the Panthers have any problems scoring in bunches, and both have suspect pass defenses; as such I'm taking the over all day long. Atlanta are able to put up a lot of points in the Georgia Dome, and the Panthers are averaging 25 points when there are no weather conditions.
This really is a tale of two cities, where in Atlanta their team really shouldn't be 2-3 as some critical execution errors have prevented them from winning games, and in Charlotte where the Panthers are better than their 1-4 record suggests. When it's all said and done I feel the Falcons have too much veteran experience for a young Panthers team to overcome, but I have a distinct feeling this will have a 'game of the week' type result.