Carolina Panthers (11-4) at Atlanta Falcons (9-6)
This is a big game for both teams. The Falcons can clinch a playoff spot with a win, but if they lose then they would need the Seahawks to lose at home to the Cardinals to remain in the playoff picture. The Panthers, meanwhile, have a playoff spot locked up already and are also still in the NFC South race. If they win this week and the Saints lose in Tampa Bay, they will win the division. This line (Atlanta -4) suggests that the Falcons are the better of these two teams, but I think that’s backwards.
In addition to having a better record, the Panthers are slightly better in both point differential (+48 vs. +26) and first down rate differential (+2.04% vs. +1.31%). The injury situations of these two teams also has to be taken into account. The Panthers are arguably as healthy as they’ve been all season right now. Tight end Greg Olsen and center Ryan Kalil returned a few weeks back after missing most of the season and right guard Trai Turner is expected back this week after missing the last 2 games with a concussion. On top of that, outside linebacker Thomas Davis returns from a one-game suspension.
On the other hand, the Falcons have been one of the healthiest teams in the league this season, but they could be without center Alex Mack in this one, as he hurt his calf in practice and has not practiced since. The Falcons have not ruled him out, but it seems unlikely that he plays and, even if he does, he won’t be at 100%. Outside of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, Mack is their most valuable offensive player, so that’s a big blow to this team. Given that, I have this line calculated at Atlanta -1.5, so we’re getting good line value with the Panthers at +4. Even if the Falcons win, about 30% of games are decided by 4 points or less and about 25% of games are decided by 3 points or less, so we’re getting a good cushion with the Panthers. They are worth a bet as long as this line stays above 3.
Atlanta Falcons 24 Carolina Panthers 23
Pick against the spread: Carolina +4