Atlanta Falcons (1-6) at Carolina Panthers (3-4)
Coming into the season, I had the Falcons as the better of these two teams and on paper they have more talent, but the Panthers have actually outplayed them by a pretty significant amount. The Panthers have faced a tough schedule overall and have been competitive in every game, with their only loss by more than one score coming against a dominant Buccaneers team in a game in which the Buccaneers won the yards per play battle, only narrow lost the first down rate battle (+1.28%), and had the game within one score late in the 4th quarter before a meaningless touchdown, despite losing the turnover battle by 2. The Falcons, who the Panthers already defeated in Atlanta back in week 5, have been the easiest opponent on the Panthers’ schedule thus far and the Panthers won the first down battle by 4.76% in that 7-point win.
The Panthers have especially outplayed the Falcons on offense, even though that should be a strength for the Falcons. On the season, the Panthers rank 8th in the NFL in first down rate and that’s even more impressive when you consider they’ve faced the 5th toughest schedule of defenses, including a trio of top defenses in the Buccaneers, Chargers, and Bears. Including schedule adjustments, the Panthers rank 2nd in the league in first down rate over expected at +3.14%. By comparison, the Falcons rank 24th in first down rate over expected.
The Panthers haven’t fared as well on defense, where they rank 26th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.56%, but offensive stats tend to be much more consistent and predictable week-to-week and the Falcons have just a narrow edge over the Panthers on defense, ranking 24th in first down rate allowed over expected at -1.43%, as they haven’t been particularly good on either side of the ball. It’s true the Falcons are three improbable blown lead away from being 4-3, but they needed to win the turnover battle against the Cowboys by 3 to gain their big lead in a game in which they lost the first down rate battle by 10.19% and they also lost the first down rate battle to the Lions and in their one win, against the the Vikings.
Their only first down rate battle win came against the Bears, despite not having a particularly tough schedule, and, on the season, they rank 29th in first down rate differential over expected at -2.70%, significantly behind the 14th ranked Panthers (+1.58%). The Panthers also have the edge in yards per play differential (+0.5 vs -1.0), point differential (-6 vs. -23), and DVOA (+0.6% vs. -13.8%), although when Football Outsiders’ pre-season projections are factored in, the Falcons have the narrow edge in DVOA (-4.9% vs. -6.3%). That last part and the Falcons’ higher level of talent on paper concern me about betting on the Panthers, because by all indications, the Falcons should be better than them, but that hasn’t been the case thus far this season.
The Falcons have had injury problems this season and have gotten healthier in recent weeks, even since their week 5 matchup with the Panthers, as they’ll have Julio Jones in the lineup this time around, while the Panthers may be going the other way, without left tackle Russell Okung and a few lesser players on the defensive side of the ball. However, it’s also a possibility the Panthers get feature back Christian McCaffrey back from injury this week, which would obviously be a big boost.
For now, I’m leaving this as a low confidence pick and this line may change from Carolina -2.5 if McCaffrey is active, but even if it does I may consider betting the Panthers, as long as the line doesn’t exceed 3. Favorites typically are at a big advantage on Thursdays and there’s a good argument to be made for the Panthers being significantly better than the Falcons if McCaffrey can go. I will have an update if needed. I am also locking in the below picks for this week before the lines move. I will have full write ups for those picks with the others as usual this weekend.
MIN +7 @ GB
IND -2.5 @ DET
Update: McCaffrey is out, but I wasn’t really expecting him to play this week and the spread has dropped to 1 as a result. I am comfortable with the Panthers at that number as they have significantly outplayed the Falcons this season, particularly on the more predictable side of the ball.
Carolina Panthers 31 Atlanta Falcons 27
Pick against the spread: Carolina -1