OT Jordan Gross (Streeter Lecka/Getty)
The Carolina Panthers just met the Atlanta Falcons three weeks ago. This time, the stakes will be much higher, as the home team aims for a division title while the visitors look to avoid becoming the NFL's only winless road team. Get set for this contest with team reports, personnel updates and more.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Field Turf
TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, Charles Davis, Jamie Maggio
PREDICTION: Falcons 34-16
KEYS TO THE GAME: Panthers rookie QB Jimmy Clausen hasn't thrown for more than 195 yards in nine starts, and is coming off a 72-yard outing at Pittsburgh. Atlanta doesn't pose quite the same challenge as the Steelers' 3-4, but the Falcons will play downhill in attacking RB Jonathan Stewart and daring Clausen to beat man coverage.
Unfortunately for Carolina, the Falcons need to win to secure the division title and home-field advantage and will come out looking to put the game away early. Atlanta jumped to a 17-0 lead and then swarmed defensively in a 31-10 Week 14 win at Carolina.
FAST FACTS: The Panthers are the only winless team on the road this season. ... Falcons QB Matt Ryan has 32 victories, one shy of Dan Marino's NFL record for the most by a quarterback through his first three seasons.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Jimmy Clausen isn't concerned about the possibility of the Carolina Panthers drafting a quarterback with the No. 1 pick in next April's NFL draft.
The idle Panthers secured the top pick in 2011 over the weekend by virtue of wins by Denver and Cincinnati and speculation is they'll take Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck if he decides to declare himself eligible for the NFL draft. If Luck, a redshirt sophomore, stays in college, the Panthers still could go for a quarterback like Auburn's Cam Newton, Washington's Jake Locker, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett or Missouri's Blaine Gabbert. Luck must declare himself draft eligible by Jan. 15.
"The only thing I can control is myself and doing everything I can to get this team ready to play on Sunday," Clausen said.
Clausen is 1-8 as the team's starting quarterback with a quarterback rating of 56.8, the worst mark in the NFL.
He's thrown only two touchdown passes with eight interceptions and has been sacked 30 times. Of his eight picks, two have been returned for touchdowns.
"That's a tough question because being a rookie and trying to do as much learning as you can," Clausen said when asked if he thinks he's done enough to keep the starting job. "Obviously, I haven't played like I want to play. But I think it's just a transition that I'm going through right now."
As for the talk about the Carolina's potential interest in Luck, Clausen replied he's going to "just keep doing what I'm doing. In the offseason, getting bigger, faster, stronger and doing the little things I need to improve on for next season is what I'm going to be focusing on.
"It's all talk and speculation, so you can't listen to that kind of stuff."
The Falcons just played the Carolina Panthers three weeks ago.
However, the NFC South title and the No. 1 seed for the playoffs will be on the line in the rematch on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons jumped out to a 17-0 lead and then cruised on in for a 31-10 victory.
The Panthers have since won their second game, while still securing the top spot for the 2011 NFL draft.
The Panthers' defense, which is led by linebacker Jon Beason and defensive end Charles Johnson, is still playing pretty hard.
"I've watched them on tape these last three games and the situation they are in, they are still playing with quite a high effort level," Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey said. "They are taking the ball away. They have 10 turnovers in the last five games. They are one of the top 10 teams in takeaways so we have to be very good with the ball."
The Falcons had two costly fumbles against New Orleans last Monday. Michael Turner fumbled on the 1-yard line and center Todd McClure skipped a shotgun snap back to Matt Ryan that was recovered by New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
The offense is coming off its least productive game of the season in which the Falcons were held to 215 yards and scored just one touchdown. They were a miserable 25 percent (3 of 12) on third downs.
All of the key weapons -- wide receiver Roddy White, tight end Tony Gonzalez and running back Michael Turner -- were held in check. Wide receiver Michael Jenkins stepped up at times, but the other weapons did not.
Look for the Falcons to attempt to get the running game rolling as they head into the playoffs. The Panthers are ranked 23rd against the run while giving up 125.5 yards per game.
"The guys are just unselfish," Mularkey said. "There is never any bickering about it. There's never anybody in Matt's ear about waiting the ball."
--WR Steve Smith was seen limping through the locker room Thursday with a stim unit on his right calf. He practiced on a limited basis Thursday and it's unclear if he will play.
--RB Jonathan Stewart returned to practice on a limited basis Thursday after sitting out practice the day before.
--FB Tony Fiammetta is likely to miss his second straight game Sunday with an ankle injury. He did not practice Thursday.
--FB Rashawn Jackson could see more playing time on Sunday against the Falcons with Tony Fiammetta out, but more than likely the Panthers will go with one-back sets and two tight ends.
--CB Chris Gamble is expected to miss his fifth straight game with an injury on Sunday.
--LB Nic Harris may not start Sunday. He missed practice Thursday with an ankle injury. If he can't go then Jordan Senn gets the start.
--QB Matt Ryan has 32 wins and can tie Hall of Famer Dan Marino (33) for most wins by quarterback in his first three seasons since 1970. Ryan is 19-2 (.905) at home as starter.
--RB Michael Turner leads the NFC with 1,304 rushing yards. He has rushed for 445 yards (111.3 per game) and eight touchdowns in the past four meetings with Carolina.
--WR Roddy White leads the NFL 109 receptions and needs three to pass Terance Mathis (111 in 1994) for the team record.
--TE Tony Gonzalez has a touchdown catch in two of past three games against Carolina.
--DE John Abraham has 11 sacks in the past 10 games. He has 102.5 sacks since 2000, second most in NFL over that period. He had a sack and an interception last week against New Orleans.
Who will win Sunday's Panthers-Falcons contest? Discuss in the message boards.