Kicking off the midway-point of a wild NFL season, the Panthers (3-4) host the Falcons (1-6) in an NFC South showdown tonight at 8:20 p.m. ET on Thursday Night Football. Oddsmakers have listed Carolina as -2 home favorites (-135 ML), and the over/under is set at a robust 51.5.
Viewers will be anxiously scanning for the sight of Christian McCaffrey before the game. The Panthers All-Pro running back has missed Carolina’s past five games due to a high-ankle sprain but has participated in team practices in non-contact capacities since Monday. On Tuesday, the Panthers designated McCaffrey to return from IR, giving the team 21 days to activate him. As of this writing on Thursday morning, official word on McCaffrey’s status for tonight’s contest has yet to be released, though the latest is he’s not expected to play. Still, we provided insight and advice for both if he plays and if he remains sidelined.
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Whether or not McCaffrey plays, the Falcons will once again have their hands full. The 2020 season has been an emotional rollercoaster for many teams, but for Atlanta, the wheels came off before the ride even began. It’s become like a weekly comedy of errors that viewers just can’t help but tune into each week. What will the Birds screw up next?
All of the issues show the Falcons have been terribly coached. The organization had already fired head coach Dan Quinn and GM Thomas Dimitroff after the Panthers beat the Falcons in Atlanta in Week 5, which may have given the players a one-week jolt, but Atlanta still beat themselves with a head-scratching lapse of judgment last week, blowing a game against a very beatable Detroit team.
Of course, the main reason why the Falcons have collapsed so many times has been their defense. Atlanta surrenders the second-most yards (425.9 per game), the second-most passing yards (334 per game), and the second-most total passing touchdowns (19) in the NFL. The Falcons also allow the most net yards per passing attempt (8.2), and the seventh-most points (29.6).
This defense has been banged up, and it has also been just plain bad. Defensive end Takk McKinley (groin) has missed multiple games, removing a key cog in Atlanta’s pass-rush and run defense. Its Swiss-cheese secondary has been ravaged by injuries. Cornerback A.J. Terrell (COVID-19) and safeties Ricardo Allen (elbow) and Keanu Neal (hamstring) have all missed time. Safety Jaylinn Hawkins sustained a concussion last week, while fellow safety Damontae Kazee suffered a season-ending torn Achilles’.
Veteran Matt Ryan has, for the most part, done his part to keep Atlanta in games. He leads the NFL in gross passing yards (2,181, or 311.6 per game) and has thrown 12 touchdowns and three interceptions. He’s above his career averages in completion percentage (66.4) and QB rating (98.8), too.
Ryan has tremendous weapons out wide in veteran Julio Jones and third-year stud Calvin Ridley. In the five games Jones has played, he has caught 79.5 percent of his targets and averaged 11.5 yards gained per target. Ridley ranks in the top four in the league in receiving yards (615) and TD catches (6). Gurley has also been a pleasant surprise for the Falcons, averaging 4.0 yards per carry and accumulating 562 scrimmage yards and a league-leading seven rushing scores. Long story short, putting points on the board never seems to be a problem for this dynamic NFC offense. Whenever Jones suits up, Ryan will shine and the Falcons will have a chance.
Carolina fans were heartbroken when McCaffrey’s dreaded Week 2 high-ankle sprain landed the 24-year-old All-Pro on the IR. Just look at his numbers from 2019 to understand their anguish. He had 1,387 rushing yards (4.8 ypc), 1,005 receiving yards (8.7 ypr, 81.7-percent catch rate), and 19 total touchdowns. The reigning league leader in touches, yards from scrimmage, and total TDs, he has meant more to the Panthers than perhaps any other offensive player means to their offense. So, the outcome of this game likely hinges on his status at 4 p.m. ET.
If Panthers coach Matt Rhule or the Panthers brass reveal that CMC has been officially activated, he can play tonight. If not, the 21-day deadline to activate him keeps ticking, and the Panthers proceed without him for the sixth-consecutive game.
Rhule and Panthers fans obviously want what’s best for McCaffrey in the long run, but they all secretly want the top running back in the game back on the field. Veteran backup Mike Davis has been outstanding in CMC’s absence, averaging 4.0 yards per carry and contributing heavily to three straight surprising wins earlier in the season (at the Chargers, vs. Arizona, and at Atlanta). Davis even did his best McCaffrey impression by combining rushing success with receiving success. He has two TDs on the ground and two through the air, and in the three wins between Weeks 3 and 5, he averaged 73 rushing yards and 44 receiving yards per game.
But the sixth-year vet has clearly lost some steam the past two weeks. He averaged 2.75 yards per touch and lost a fumble in a 23-16 home loss to Chicago in Week 6, falling to his former team. He managed just 12 yards on seven carries last week in a tough 27-24 loss to the Saints. At this rate, Davis might be leading the cheering section for McCaffrey’s return, if for nothing else but a breather. Even if the All-Pro suits up, he will more than likely cede around eight-to-10 touches to Davis.
One of the better quarterback stories this season has been that of Panthers QB Teddy Bridgewater. Teddy B revived his career as a backup for Drew Brees in New Orleans, and when the future Hall-of-Famer went down last season, Bridgewater stepped in and stepped up. The sixth-year vet finished last season with a 99.1 QB rating, and has astonishingly duplicated that same exact rating this season as the man under center in Carolina. He has completed 72.2 percent of his passes, averaged 275.7 passing yards per game, and thrown eight touchdowns. His 8.25 net yards per passing attempt ranks sixth in the NFL.
Bridgewater’s 11.4 yards per completion this season serves as a career-best mark, thanks in large part to the awesome chemistry he developed early in the season with fellow veteran Robby Anderson (91.4 receiving yards per game, 78-perrcent catch rate). Now that D.J. Moore has come alive as well, totaling exactly 93 receiving yards in each of Carolina’s past three games (plus three TDs in that span), look out below.
Of course, the Panthers feel the Falcons’ pain when it comes to disappointing defense. Carolina’s secondary has been fairly middle-of-the-pack, but its run defense has been almost as abysmal as Atlanta’s pass D. The Panthers rank 27th in rushing touchdowns allowed (10), and 28th in yards allowed per rushing attempt (4.9). Carolina can never seem to get off the field, as only two teams allow more time and plays per drive. This game seems like it was made for fans of betting the OVER.
At the risk of sounding unoriginal, the best piece of advice regarding this game is to check the status of McCaffrey and take things from there. If CMC gets activated at 4 p.m. ET, and reports are confirmed that he will play and not be on a ‘pitch count’ under 20 touches, the Panthers -2 is the easy play. Atlanta struggles to defend pass-catching backs, especially against offenses that also have good slot and out-wide receivers. There’s no reason to trust the beleaguered Falcons to pull off an upset with the confidence-infusion that would come with McCaffrey’s return.
If CMC does not get activated and the Panthers have to ride with Davis as their featured back once more, the Falcons are a good pick. The BetQL NFL Best Bet Model has the Falcons +2 as a modest two-star bet. The model puts a three-star confidence level on the Falcons first-half moneyline (+115), and it’s all over the first-half total. Vegas has the first-half over/under listed at 24.5, and our model puts a whopping five-star rating on its projected total of 27 for the OVER. Personally, the OVER for the total seems pretty intriguing, as well.
Happy Thursday everyone, and don’t forget to do your due diligence this afternoon! For up-to-the-minute game information, updated lines, odds, spreads, and expert picks for this and every NFL game this season, go to BetQL.com!
You can find all updated lines, odds, spreads, and NFL picks at BetQL!