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Thursday Night Football Preview: Falcons at Panthers

Week 8’s TNF matchup is a rematch of a Week 5 encounter between the two NFC South division rivals, the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers. A win is needed by both teams to stay alive in the division race with future hall of fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Drew Brees and their respective teams. Both teams in this game feature two wide receivers that dominate the target share of their team’s passing offenses. Unlike last week’s game where both the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants implemented running back by committees, the Falcons and Panthers utilize workhorse backs in their offenses and the backup running backs are only used to give the starting running backs a breather. The quarterback play is two contrasting styles. The Falcons are an air it out offense that relies on its receivers getting open and behind the defense. The Panthers utilize short, quick passes that rely on receivers to create after the catch.


Atlanta Falcons (1-6) at Carolina Panthers (3-4)

Spread: Panthers -2.5 | Over/Under 49

Vegas Odds

The Atlanta Falcons are 1-6 straight up in their last 7 games. The Falcons are 5-1 in both the ATS and SU against the Carolina Panthers in their last 6 matchups. The Falcons are 6-1 ATS in their last 7 games on the road. The total has gone UNDER in 6 of the last 7 games that the Falcons played the Panthers at Carolina. The total has gone UNDER in 5 of the Falcon’s last 6 games played in October.

The Carolina Panthers are 4-1 ATS in their last 5 games. In their last 15 games against the Atlanta Falcons, the total has gone UNDER in 11 of those games. The Panthers are 3-12 straight up in their last 15 games, including 1-6 straight up in their last 7 games at home. The Panthers are 7-2 ATS in their last 9 games played in October. The total has gone OVER in 5 of Carolina’s last 6 games against an NFC South opponent.

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The defense of the Carolina Panthers struggles to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks and only blitzes on 16.7-percent of quarterback dropbacks. Matt Ryan ranks No. 15 in the NFL in clean pocket completion percentage (75.8-percent). On the season, the Atlanta Falcons are No. 2 in the NFL in pass attempts (286) and Ryan has thrown 34 deep ball attempts (No. 4). The passing offense has improved in two games since Dan Quinn’s firing. Ryan has back-to-back 300+ yard performances and 5 combined passing touchdowns. For comparison, from weeks 2-5 Ryan failed to surpass 300 yards and 5 combined passing touchdowns in four games.

A notable shift in offensive philosophy is Matt Ryan throwing shorter, more accurate passes. These past two games without Dan Quinn, Ryan has his two lowest air yard (yards the ball travels in the air on all thrown passes) performances, while also recording his two best completion percentage games of the 2020 season. The Falcons in weeks 6 and 7 are top-10 in yards per attempt to each skill position and are top-5 in pass success rate to tight ends and wide receivers. The only weakness in the post-Quinn era passing offense is passing to the running back position. The Falcons are bottom-quarter in the NFL in pass success rate to the running back position.

Interesting game-split stat for Teddy Bridgewater on the season is games he has 250+ air yards versus games he throws under 250 air yards. The three games that Bridgewater exceeded 250 air yards were his three worst fantasy performances on the season. In the four games that Bridgewater threw under 250 air yards, he recorded three top-13 weekly performances at the quarterback position. One of those performances was against the Atlanta Falcons in week 5, leading to Dan Quinn’s dismissal. In weeks 6 and 7, the Falcons have allowed 338 and 347 air yards respectively to Kirk Cousins and Matthew Stafford.

In the last three weeks, Teddy Bridgewater and the Carolina Panthers passing offense has had elite success throwing to wide receivers. The Panthers have a 63-percent pass success rate (No. 4) and average 10.6 yards per pass attempt (No. 4) when targeting wide receivers. On the other side of the field, the Atlanta Falcons are dead last in yards allowed per pass attempt to wide receivers (12.2) in the last two weeks.

Running Backs

Todd Gurley enters week 8 coming off a season-best 73.5-percent snap share game against the Detroit Lions last week. This makes four straight weeks of Gurley running 18+ routes and was his third top-12 performance during that stretch. Gurley benefits from a volume role in the running game. He is No. 6 in rushing yards (485) and has created 182 yards when he touches the ball (No. 7), but is a non-factor in the receiving game recording 77 yards on 13 catches on the season. On 20 targets, Gurley averages fewer than 4.0 yards per target but has seen an increase in both target volume and yards per target in the last two weeks. In those two games, Gurley averaged 3.5 targets per game and 5.6 yards per target. That’s almost a full target more per game (2.6) and twice as many yards per target (2.9) than Gurley averaged in weeks 1 through 5. The Carolina Panthers defense has allowed 7.5 yards per pass attempt to running backs (No. 29) over the last three weeks.

Be patient, Christian McCaffrey fantasy managers. With McCaffrey wearing a red, non-contact jersey in practice on Monday, it’s safe to assume that McCaffrey is not ready to play football on a short week. Mike Davis reprises his role as a workhorse role in McCaffrey’s absence. Last week’s matchup was the first time on the season that Davis failed to score double-digit fantasy points. Don’t let that let down deter you from starting Davis this week. Just three weeks ago Davis finished as THE RB1 in fantasy, putting up 29.9 fantasy points and 149 yards from scrimmage against…the Atlanta Falcons. Davis is matchup proof because the Panthers feed their featured back all of the opportunities in the backfield. Davis has a snap share of 73.5-percent, which is No. 5 among all running backs. He receives work in the passing game (41 targets, No. 3) and the red zone (24 touches, No. 8). Start Davis one last time with 100-percent confidence before McCaffrey returns from his injury.

Wide Receivers

Week 8 is shaping up to be a Calvin Ridley week this week. Ridley lining up primarily on the right side of the field (52-percent) means that he will line up against rookie Troy Pride more than Donte Jackson. Ridley is No. 13 among wide receivers in yards per route run (2.29) and Pride allows the 12th-most yards per route covered (1.61). Pride has PFF’s second-lowest grade among cornerbacks entering week 8. After failing to out-target Ridley in any game this season while Dan Quinn was the coach, Julio Jones has had more targets and receiving yards in each of the last two games than Ridley. Jones has reasserted himself as the 1A in this receiving duo. That also means that he receives the tougher coverage assignment and Donte Jackson is no slouch. Jackson allows the 11th-fewest yards per route covered and has a respectable 71.0 PFF grade this season. Jones has averaged 2.60 yards per route run (No. 5) and averages a healthy 23-percent target rate per route.

In the previous paragraph, I mentioned that Troy Pride had PFF’s second-lowest grade among cornerbacks. The lowest graded cornerback is Kendall Sheffield of the Atlanta Falcons. D.J. Moore is projected to see most of Sheffield’s coverage snaps and is coming off his season-best performance of 4/93/2. The last time these teams played in week 5, Moore matched up against Sheffield and finished with 4/93/1 on 5 targets. Moore won’t need a large number of targets to do damage this week. Sheffield allows a league-worst 2.77 yards per route covered, while D.J. Moore averages 2.33 yards per route run (No. 11). Robby Anderson’s 125 air yard in week 5 was a season-best for him when these teams met the first time. Anderson’s 2.76 yards per route run is the fourth-most among wide receivers. The Falcons have an abysmal pass defense and allow enough passing yards to make Moore and Anderson both startable wide receivers in fantasy football. In week 5, both receivers finished in the top-20 in fantasy points.

Tight Ends

Through the first five weeks of the season, Hayden Hurst was considered a fantasy bust. Coming into the season, Hurst was a popular late-round tight end option that analysts predicted would step into the 2019 Austin Hooper role (75/787/6) that helped Hooper finish as the TE3 in points per game. In weeks 1 through 5, Hooper has two top-12 weeks and three weeks outside the top-20. After the coaching change, Hurst has averaged 37 routes run, 5.5 targets, 5 receptions, 62.5 yards, and 0.5 touchdowns. Hurst finished with two top-10 weeks in weeks 6 and 7. However, the Carolina Panthers defense excels at stopping tight ends in the passing game. In the last three weeks, the Panthers are top-4 in pass success rates (41-percent) and yards allowed per pass attempt (3.8) to the tight end position. This includes week 5, where the Panthers held Hurst to 2 receptions (6 targets) for 8 yards.

I am not going to spend much time analyzing the tight end position for the home team, Carolina Panthers. Over the past three weeks, no team in the NFL targets the tight end position at a lower rate than the Panthers (6-percent). Even when the Panthers do target the tight end position, they are recording the lowest pass success rate to tight ends (20-percent) and second-fewest yards per pass attempt (5.2). The Atlanta Falcons pass defense allows a 24-percent target rate to tight ends and is bottom-quarter in yards allowed per pass attempt to tight ends (10.3). Unfortunately, Ian Thomas has had three straight one-target games. In six games, Thomas has 12 total targets despite running 25 or more routes in five games. Thomas is probably on the waiver wire in your league and he can remain there this week.

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Defense/Special Teams

The Atlanta Falcons defense has allowed the second-most yards per game (425.9) largely due to their inability to stop the pass (333.4 yards per game). This is also reflected in their pass defense DVOA on the season (27.9-percent, No. 31). Only six teams have allowed more points scored per game (29.6). The Falcons have returned 15 kick returns this season (No. 5), but only average 20.0 yards per kick return (ninth-fewest). Only the New York Jets have averaged fewer yards per kick return AND returned more kicks than the Falcons. They are better at returning punts, averaging 9.9 yards per punt return (No. 11) but have only returned 8 punts all season. As a whole, the special teams of the Falcons rank below average in DVOA (No. 21). The Falcons defense has 8 takeaways on the season and is in the bottom quarter of the league in sacks (10). This is alarming because the Falcons are in the top-third of the league in blitz per dropback.

The Carolina Panthers, led by CB Donte Jackson, boast the 10th-best defense in passing yards allowed (227.1) but are below-average in rushing yards allowed (124.0). When looking at defense DVOA, the Panthers are worse at stopping the pass than the yards allow indicates (No. 17) and bottom-5 in rushing defense (3.5-percent). The Panthers allow the 13th-fewest points in the NFL (24.0). When compared to the Atlanta Falcons, the return games of the Panthers are opposite of their division rival. The Panthers are bottom-quarter in the NFL in yards per punt return (5.3), but average the 12th-most yards per kick return (22.9). The Panthers boast a slightly better overall special team units than the Falcons (-0.4-percent, No. 17). The Panthers defense has 10 takeaways on the season and has the fewest sacks in the NFL (6). The lack of sacks is attributed to the Panthers league-low 17.0-percent QB pressures per dropback. The only team in the NFL to record more missed tackles from their defense than the Panthers (65) are the New York Jets (77).

Final Thoughts

The Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers manage to take care of the ball well and don’t turn over the ball at a high rate. Both teams are +2 in turnover differential. When looking at penalties, the Falcons and Panthers have nearly identical stats. Both teams have committed 40 penalties, where the Falcons were penalized for 339 yards and the Panthers were penalized for 343 yards. The Panthers have the advantage in both passing and rushing offense, with the Falcons being an abysmal -25.3 DVOA rushing offense (No. 30). The Panthers have an average pass defense, but the Falcons pass defense is towards the bottom of the league. The Falcons have a top-8 rushing defense DVOA and the Panthers have a bottom-5 rushing defense DVOA. Carolina has the edge in its overall special teams unit over the Falcons. The Panthers are the better team on the paper and they will cover at home against the sinking ship known as the Atlanta Falcons. I’ll also take the under in this NFC South showdown. Panthers 24-17.

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