ATLANTA — Home-field advantage is within reach for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
For Newton, that incentive overshadows any talk that he may be similarly close to wrapping up the MVP award. Or that the Panthers are closing in on an undefeated regular season.
The Panthers (14-0) will try to clinch the right to play their playoff games at home when they face the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday for the second time in three weeks.
A loss or tie by Arizona, or a Panthers win, would clinch home-field advantage. It also would give Carolina coach Ron Rivera the option of resting such key starters as Newton in next week’s final regular-season game against Tampa Bay.
Then again, that unbeaten regular season could be on the line.
“I don’t know if it’s become bigger than what our goal is,” Newton said Wednesday when asked about the pressure of carrying a perfect record this deep into the season.
The goal, of course, is the Super Bowl.
Newton is regarded by many as the MVP favorite. He has thrown for 3,402 yards and a career-high 33 touchdown passes, 18 in his last five games. He has three games with five TD passes.
Newton dismissed the MVP discussion as “irrelevant.”
“I’m ignoring the MVP talk because it’s a team sport,” he said.
Carolina never looked more dominant in its run than on Dec. 13, when it raced to a 21-0 first-quarter lead and beat the Falcons 38-0. Atlanta’s first shutout loss in 11 years left a mark on the Falcons’ players and coaches.
“Anytime you get whipped, it for sure leaves a scar in you,” said Falcons coach Dan Quinn this week. “I don’t spend all my time thinking about it, but by the same token I didn’t forget it.”
Falcons running back Devonta Freeman said this week the loss will “stick with me probably forever.”
The Falcons (7-7) looked like a definite playoff contender when they opened the season with five straight wins. The reality check was demoralizing. A streak of seven losses in eight games, including six straight, all but ended Atlanta’s playoff hopes.
This is a rare chance for Atlanta to atone for the ugly loss to the Panthers after waiting only two weeks.
“We’re in a unique spot that we don’t have to (wait),” Quinn said. “ … Having it come so quickly, with another opportunity to go do it, we’re thrilled to death.”
Here are some things to know about the Panthers and Falcons:
STEWART HURTING: Rivera said he would “err on the side of caution” with running back Jonathan Stewart, who suffered a sprained foot in the last game against Atlanta and didn’t play against the Giants last week. Rookie Cameron Artis-Payne had 59 yards rushing last week.
NOT LOOKING AHEAD: Newton wouldn’t be drawn into any discussion of how he would like to handle next week’s game against Tampa Bay if the Panthers beat the Falcons and have home field for the entire conference playoffs wrapped up. Would he want to play a full game to help preserve an undefeated regular season, or would he rather take the extra rest for the playoffs, even with a bye week waiting in the first round?
“We’ll take that one when the next week comes,” he said.
SLIM AND NONE: Atlanta kept its slim postseason hopes alive by beating Jacksonville 23-17 last week. To make the playoffs, the Falcons would have to win their last two games and have Seattle and Minnesota lose their last two games. The Falcons play New Orleans next week in Atlanta to close their regular season.
KEEP IT CLEAN: Falcons players say they’ll do a better job of watching their emotions than in their last game against Carolina. Quinn pulled offensive tackle Ryan Schraeder following a personal foul penalty and defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman had to be pulled away from defensive line coach Bryan Cox on the sideline.
There also will be an added emphasis on avoiding personal fouls after Carolina cornerback Josh Norman was fined and Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was suspended following last week’s game.
“We want to establish our toughness right between the whistles,” Quinn said. “That style, that attitude we like to play with, we like to demonstrate that. But we don’t need it after the whistle.”
STREAKING: Going back to the 2014 season, the Panthers have won 18 straight regular-season games, the longest streak since the Indianapolis Colts won 23 in a row in 2008-09.