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Atlanta Falcons Schedule Preview, Week 4: An NFC Opener With Carolina

After a three-week stint against the AFC West, the Falcons will head home and open NFC South division play against the rival Panthers.

2011 Record: 6-10 (3rd in NFC South, missed playoffs)
Noteworthy Stats: In two starts against the Falcons, QB Cam Newton has thrown five interceptions to only two touchdowns, and failed to top 50 yards rushing in either contest.
Key Additions: FB Mike Tolbert, S Haruki Nakamura, OG Mike Pollak, LB Luke Kuechly (draft pick)
Key Losses: RB Mike Goodson, OG Travelle Wharton, OT Jeff Otah, TE Jeremy Shockey

As far as the I-85 rivalry goes, the Falcons have had all the success in recent years, winning six the eight contests in the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era in Atlanta.

The real key to this game, and really to the Panthers 2012 season, is which Cam Newton shows up to play. After throwing for almost 2400 yards in September and October, Cam Newton only managed 1600 yards in the months of November, December, and January. His completion rate dropped, as did his passer rating, in that time span as well.

Will it be the stellar rookie that lit the league on fire over the first eight games? Or the one that regressed over the second half?

My money is on the latter. I think Cammy Cam's in for a sophomore slump. Defenses adjust to rookie success, and the Falcons in particular have shown the ability to force mistakes out of the Auburn alum.

And there's also the Carolina defense, which left a lot to be desired in 2011. The addition of first-round pick Luke Kuechly should improve their play against the run, but the interior line and secondary still have some question marks.

Verdict: Win

The Falcons, now without Corey Peters, will have a tough time stopping the run in this one. But having said that, I think the offense runs wild on a secondary that lacks talent outside of Chris Gamble, and Atlanta wins decisively.

For more on this game Falcons fans should visit The Falcoholic and Panthers fans should check out Cat Scratch Reader. For more news and notes from around the NFL head over to SB Nation's NFL hub page.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.