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Confident Panthers seek to clinch NFC South title with visit to Atlanta
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Panthers at Falcons

When: 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta


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 lopsided 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 disappointing 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. We can make it a lot easier for ourselves and earn some rest and let other teams beat themselves up."

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. When you watch the film on them now, they're a confident football team. They're out there flying around. They're comfortable within their scheme and they feel like they're going to find ways to win games. They've done a great job of that this year."

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.

"I think it's a compliment to the division," said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen. 'I think the level of competition in this division is as high as any. It shows that on any given year depending on how some teams get some breaks with injuries, and how things kind of settle in, anybody is capable of winning it.

"I don't think that has been the case in a lot of other divisions. We have four teams that can give you headaches every weekend. There is no gimme. We were the down team the last couple of years and you see what this team is capable of doing."

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're going to do everything we can to prepare ourselves to be ready 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.

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