PJ Walker will continue at QB for Carolina, despite being benched at half-time last week; he returned a 0.0 passer rating, completed just three of 10 throws for nine yards, with two interceptions; watch Falcons @ Panthers live on Sky Sports NFL at 1.15am, Friday morning
Last Updated: 10/11/22 2:57pm
The NFC South may well be statistically the worst division in the NFL currently, but the clash between the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons on Thursday night is one that still has huge playoff ramifications, with the Falcons looking for a win that would edge them into the lead in the division.
The Falcons (4-5) own the same record as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-5) atop the division but are currently edged out into second spot after having lost their first head-to-head meeting in Week Five. But a win over the Panthers (2-7) in prime time would nudge them ahead of Tom Brady’s men and apply the pressure back on them ahead of their Sunday matchup with the Seattle Seahawks (6-3) in Germany.
Thursday night’s matchup is also a repeat of a thriller between the Falcons and Panthers that played out less than a fortnight ago which Atlanta won 37-34 in overtime after a hugely dramatic finish.
November 11, 2022, 12:00am
The two teams combined for three touchdowns in the final three minutes and six seconds of regulation, including a stunning 62-yard Hail Mary pass from Carolina quarterback PJ Walker to DJ Moore to tie the game with 12 seconds remaining.
But, a costly unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Moore after he removed his helmet in the celebrations pushed Carolina’s game-winning extra point attempt back 15 yards and Eddy Pineiro’s 48-yarder missed wide left.
The Panthers would have another chance to win it in OT after CJ Henderson returned an interception 54 yards to the Falcons 20-yard line, but Pineiro missed with another kick, and ultimately Atlanta’s Younghoe Koo managed what he couldn’t by kicking a 41-yard field goal to win it with just under two minutes left of the extra period.
Walker, who started the season as Carolina’s fourth-string QB – behind Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and rookie Matt Corral – finished with a career-high 317 yards passing in that contest, but then followed it up with a horror showing last weekend in which he returned a 0.0 passer rating, having completed just three of 10 passing attempts for nine yards, with two interceptions. He was benched at half-time with the Panthers trailing 35-0 to the Cincinnati Bengals.
It meant that Mayfield returned to the line-up after more than three weeks out to injury with a high ankle sprain, and he was able to add a little bit of respectability to the scoreline by leading three second-half scoring drives, two of which ended with touchdown passes thrown by the 2018 No 1 overall draft pick.
Darnold was added back to the 53-man roster this week. But Panthers interim head coach Steve Wilks has resisted the urge to make a change at QB, for now. “We all have bad games. P.J. wasn’t the only one,” Wilks told reporters this week. “I could bench everybody if we go off bad games.
“We’re going to rally behind PJ and definitely give him the things that he needs from a game plan standpoint.”
Walker said of his performance: “As a quarterback, you cannot let that affect you. For me, you have to just to go out there and be you.
“Don’t go out there and change your game. Don’t go out there and take your aggressiveness away; be aggressively smart. That’s the way you’ve got to approach this week.”
Wilks did, however, make further changes to his coaching staff this week, with defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni and defensive backs coach Evan Cooper both fired on Monday.
As for the Falcons, quarterback Marcus Mariota has struggled to consistently push the ball down the field this season, with the team ranked near the bottom of the league in passing yards and attempts in its run-first offense.
Mariota did, however, have a big outing in the Week Eight game between these two teams, completing 20 of 28 passes for 253 yards and three touchdowns (and two interceptions), while he also had a key 30-yard run in overtime to set up Koo’s game-winning kick.
The Falcons boast the league’s fourth-best rushing attack and have the bonus of Cordarrelle Patterson being back from injured reserve and in the line-up. Patterson did not play against Carolina in the previous matchup, but celebrated his return by rushing for two scores in last week’s 20-17 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, in which Atlanta blew a 10-point first-quarter lead.
Falcons rookie Tyler Allgeier – a fifth-round pick from BYU – also ran for a career-high 99 yards on 10 carries against the Chargers, with the team averaging 5.7 yards per carry and surpassing 200 yards rushing for the third time this season.
Their rushing attack should, therefore, be licking their lips at the prospect of facing a Panthers defense that allowed Bengals running back Joe Mixon to rush for 153 yards and four touchdowns on the ground last week and coughed up 241 total rushing yards to Cincinnati.
Carolina also had success on the ground in their previous meeting with Atlanta, with D’Onta Foreman running for 118 yards and a career-high three TDs, along with a two-point conversion. It was Foreman’s second straight 118-yard rushing game, although he was then held to just 23 yards on seven carries in last week’s blowout loss to the Bengals.
Carolina could be close to full strength defensively for Thursday night’s contest. Team sack leader Brian Burns (shoulder) and cornerback Donte Jackson (ankle) were full participants in Tuesday’s practice and Wednesday’s session. The Panthers have though listed running back Chuba Hubbard (ankle), defensive tackle Matthew Ioannidis (back) and right tackle Taylor Moton (elbow) as questionable for the game.
Atlanta offensive lineman Matt Hennessy will miss the game with a knee injury after going down in Sunday’s loss to the Chargers. The Falcons will also be without starting cornerback A.J. Terrell (hamstring), safety Erik Harris (foot) and tight end Feleipe Franks (calf).
Watch the Atlanta Falcons at the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football, live on Sky Sports NFL from 1.15am on Friday