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Carolina Panthers @ Atlanta Falcons: Back the team that needs it most

Julio Jones is the key offensive weapon in the Atlanta Falcons passing attack
Julio Jones is the key offensive weapon in the Atlanta Falcons passing attack
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The NFC South could provide both Wildcard teams from the NFC but to do so, Atlanta still have work to do. Neil Monnery previews their game with the Carolina Panthers on Sunday...

'Matt Ryan has been a pale imitation of the 2016 version this time around. Last years MVP hasn't thrown for more than two TDs in any game this season.'

Carolina Panthers @ Atlanta Falcons
Sunday 31 December, 21:25
TV: Live on Sky Sports Action

For the Panthers...

Having already secured a spot in the playoffs, this game will decide what exactly their match-up is on Wildcard Weekend.

Since the embarrassing 17-3 loss to the Bears in October, the Panthers have reeled off seven wins out of eight. They have this sense of a team who finds ways to win. Watching them last week, it seemed highly unlikely they would taste victory against the lowly Buccaneers but they got it done.

Cam Newton has not had his 'A' game this year. Yet the team have trundled along without their Superstar QB hitting his stride. Going forward he is their best player but not their key man. That distinction goes to rookie RB Christian McCaffrey.

The first-round player out of Stanford has such dynamism that means opposition defenses have to account for him on every play. In the Packers game a fortnight ago he rushed 12 times and caught balls on six occasions, totalling 136 all-purpose yards. Getting him the ball is how they win or lose in January.

Getting Greg Olsen back is also massive. The All-Pro Tight End spent far too much time on the sidelines this season. If healthy (which it seems like he is) then Newton has that safe pair of hands he so needs.

For the Falcons...

Unlike their opponents on New Years Eve, Atlanta still have some work to do if they are to ensure their spot on Wildcard Weekend. All they have to do is win and they'll give themselves a chance of returning to the Super Bowl a year after the choke job for the ages.

Matt Ryan has been a pale imitation of the 2016 version this time around. Last year's MVP hasn't thrown for more than two TD's in any game this season. It shows just how out of character his performances were last year. I have little belief that he can carry the load.

This means he'll have to rely on his skill players and that always starts with Julio Jones. The seventh-year player out of Alabama is the best Wide Receiver in the NFL. Top line speed, a great leap, fantastic route runner and soft hands all adds up to pure class. He went for 149 yards on just seven catches last week, that is exactly what the Falcons need.

Devonta Freeman leads the runners in the backfield. After missing some time in November, he's come back and looked pretty solid. If Tevin Coleman and he can get the Panthers to step up to stop the run, it should open up play-action opportunities down the field.

One small injury question mark to keep an eye on, Alex Mack is listed as Questionable on the injury report. If the Falcons lose their Center, that is worth considering when making your bets.

The Picks...

Carolina are getting four points on the road, if this game meant much to them then I'd be more nervous picking against the away side but it's essentially win or go home for the Falcons. Therefore I'll go with Atlanta-4 for [2.04] on the Exchange.

Points-wise the line has been set at 45. This has surprised me as I thought it would be 48/49. Both teams score points, the game is indoors in a dome. Lots of reasons to believe this will go over at [1.94] on the Exchange.

On the side markets, I'll go back to an old favourite, the first TD scorer market. Plenty of value at 12/1 and I'll go with Greg Olsen at that price.

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