In a division known for sensational parity and worst-to-first turnarounds, the Carolina Panthers have been tortuously predictable over past few years. They get behind early in the season through a number of close losses, severely draining both their momentum and morale, and eventually end up at or near the bottom of the division.
Sure, they reel off some convincing wins late in the season, but that momentum rarely carries over to the next year. The 2013 season started off in déjà vu style, going 1-3 with their only win against the hapless New York Giants, but since then, they have roared back with three-straight wins to sit comfortably at 4-3.
Neither the Atlanta Falcons nor Tampa Bay Buccaneers have lived up to the expectations attached to them prior to the season, going 2-12 collectively. The New Orleans Saints have returned to dominant form with the return of play-calling genius Sean Payton, sitting atop the division at 6-1. The Panthers are the bridge between those two contingents, showing some of the flaws that have made the Falcons and Bucs so lackluster, while also exhibiting some of the strengths that make the Saints so good. The Panthers face the Falcons on Sunday in a matchup that will weigh heavily in the fate of both teams, especially within the division.
The Falcons desperately need a divisional win besides the Bucs to retain any kind of respect for themselves this season, and the Panthers need one as well to assert their dominance. Seemingly, anyone can beat the Bucs this year amid the constant controversy in that organization, so those wins for each team don’t really count for much.
If the Falcons win, they will begin their climb back up the divisional ladder, one I’m not entirely sure they can climb. If the Panthers can beat the Falcons, though, they will put an iron grip on the second-place spot in the division, not to mention putting some heat on the Saints to win, which is a pleasant change from previous years.