Atlanta Falcons (5-9) at Carolina Panthers (6-8)
The Panthers got off to a great start to the season, starting 6-2, but they’ve been in freefall ever since, losing 6 straight to effectively eliminate themselves from the post-season. Most of those losses were close, with five straight losses by a touchdown or less, and they won the first down rate battle in four of those close losses, so they could easily have 8-9 wins right now if a few snaps went differently, but with their season essentially over, the Panthers have decided to shut injured quarterback Cam Newton down for the season.
Newton getting shut down caused this line to shift to Atlanta -3, after originally being Carolina -3 early in the week (and Carolina -6 on the early line last week). Originally I liked Atlanta a lot at +3, because this isn’t a good spot for the Panthers, sandwiched in between two huge games against the Saints, but Newton has been part of the problem lately, throwing at least one interception in all 6 of the Panthers’ losses, including 6 in the past 3 games, so I think this line shifted way too much for his absence.
The Falcons are still an average team at best and the Panthers have played a lot of close games (7 of 8 losses by a touchdown or less), even with underwhelming quarterback play in recent weeks. New starting quarterback Taylor Heinicke is a complete wild card, with 5 career pass attempts in 4 seasons in the league since going undrafted in 2015, and we’re not getting nearly enough points to bet on the Panthers confidently with him under center, but I like the Panthers for pick ‘em purposes now that they’re getting a field goal.
Final Update: Kawaan Short was ruled out Sunday morning with a calf injury, after surprisingly playing through it last week against the Saints. That’s yet another big loss for the Panthers, who also placed linebacker Shaq Thompson on injured reserve this week. The Falcons, meanwhile, have played better defensively since getting linebacker Deion Jones back a few weeks ago. This is still a no confidence pick, but I’m changing sides.
Atlanta Falcons 24 Carolina Panthers 20
Pick against the spread: Atlanta -3