Panthers-Falcons Preview

Ron Rivera didn't mince words when it came to the first imperfect moment of the season for his Carolina Panthers.

Putting a banned baseball bat aside, the Panthers prefer to focus on locking up the NFC's No. 1 seed, and after the way they manhandled Atlanta two weeks ago, it looks like a strong possibility they'll be chasing 16-0 in their regular-season finale.

Carolina moved to 14-0 with a testy 38-35 win over the New York Giants last Sunday. The headliners of what resembled a grudge match were Panthers cornerback Josh Norman and Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. before a bat took center stage in the aftermath.

Beckham's three personal foul penalties earned a one-game suspension and Norman received two fines totaling $26,044 for a face mask and striking an opponent in the head or neck area. Rivera was clearly upset with what he called untrue reports that some of his players taunted Beckham with a bat and homophobic slurs before kickoff.

"We don't tolerate that here," the coach said. "We don't."

The Panthers had been carrying the bat onto the field as motivation for their "home run" mentality, but the NFL sent a memo to all 32 teams Tuesday reminding them that "no foreign objects unrelated to the uniform or playing equipment are permitted on the playing field and sidelines on game day."

Rivera wasn't interested in sugarcoating his opinion on the situation.

"Because I'm going to hear it if I don't. That's the truth of the matter. So to avoid the situation and set of circumstances, let's just eliminate it. So that's what we're going to do. Again, it's the No Fun League for a reason."

The nasty nature of the game overshadowed the excitement. The Giants tied it in the fourth quarter by matching an NFL record with a 28-point comeback before the Panthers won on Graham Gano's 43-yard field goal as time expired.

Cam Newton was somehow overshadowed despite continuing to make his case for MVP with 340 yards and five touchdown passes to go with another 100 yards on the ground. Newton, who also guided his team on the winning drive, avoided an interception for the fifth time in six games and has one in that span.

Carolina was a perfect 10 on Tuesday with that many players - an NFL best - selected to the Pro Bowl. Newton, Norman and linebacker Thomas Davis are among them.

Having won the NFC South, the Panthers can claim the conference's top seed with a win over the Falcons (7-7), and they close at home against Tampa Bay. The three previous teams to reach 14-0 - Miami (1972), New England (2007) and Indianapolis ('09) - went to the Super Bowl, but only the Dolphins won the title.

"These last two games are division opponents, and we'll be in a hostile environment in Atlanta," Newton said. "And we've got a tricky week with Christmas. We just have to find a way to keep moving ahead and make sure we stay on the side of the pendulum."

The Falcons (7-7) will embrace a spoiler's mentality for Sunday's rematch after snapping a six-game skid last week. Atlanta is a longshot to make the playoffs.

It kept pace with the Panthers during a 5-0 start before the collapse, which culminated in a 38-0 embarrassment against Carolina on Dec. 13.

"You have to go through some struggles some times," coach Dan Quinn said. "We all recognize that. They're painful as hell at times, but that is where some of that grit is developed. It's painful but valuable."

Newton was outstanding against Atlanta, going 15 of 21 for 265 yards and three touchdowns with no picks for a career-best rating of 153.3. It was the ninth time in his 76 career games that he had a completion percentage of 70.0 or higher.

Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, who joined receiver Julio Jones as a Pro Bowl pick, was quiet with 40 yards on 12 carries that day. Freeman rushed for just 56 yards Sunday, but his touchdown run was needed in a skid-busting 23-17 win at Jacksonville.

Jones also chipped in with his first touchdown catch in seven weeks, and he reached 118 receptions - tops in the NFL- to best Roddy White's team mark of 115 set in 2010.

A slim chance remains for Atlanta to claim a wild-card spot, but it will need to win out and have Seattle and Minnesota lose their final two games.

The Panthers' last visit to the Georgia Dome resulted in a 34-3 season-ending rout Dec. 28 that secured the division title. Carolina has won five of the previous six meetings.

"As far as I know, if you've got a shot, you've got a shot," Quinn said. "We've got an awesome challenge ahead this week and it's one we're absolutely jacked for."

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