The NFC South takes centerstage to kick off Week 8.
For the second time in four weeks, the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers will clash.
This time, Matt Ryan leads the Falcons (1-6) into Bank of America Stadium to face Teddy Bridgewater and the host Panthers (3-4) at 8:20 p.m. ET on Thursday Night Football, airing on NFL Network, FOX and Amazon Prime Video.
When the teams first met in Week 5, the Panthers collected a 23-16 win, but they haven't won since. Meanwhile, that was the Falcons' final game with Dan Quinn as head coach. Now, interim coach Raheem Morris is at the helm and Atlanta is aiming to salvage a season that began with five consecutive losses.
Here's what to what for on Thursday night:
Teddy B finding his way in Carolina
Coming off the worst showing of his season in Week 6 against the Bears, Bridgewater reaffirmed in Week 7 just how great a fit he is for rookie coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady in Carolina's franchise rebuild. It's a rebuild that by all accounts is ahead of schedule and Bridgewater is a big reason why. The sixth-year signal-caller is well on his way to establishing career-highs across the board. Perhaps most notable is his 72.2 completion percentage on the year, which is more accurate than he's ever been. Though the Panthers lost to the Saints in Week 7, Bridgewater was wonderful against his old club, completing 23 of 28 passes (82%) for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns. For the 27-year-old Bridgewater, this isn't your average situation. In many ways, he's still growing as a quarterback and yet he's a veteran presence in Carolina. He's a longform comeback story who's emerging from a horrific injury as a Viking, having matured as a backup with the Saints and is now leading a franchise into a new era.
Enjoy the Falcons greats
When you crack open the book that tells the tale of the history of the Atlanta Falcons, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones will each have chapters of their own. Each of them offer up Hall of Fame numbers, Ryan owning the top spot in Falcons chronicle for every notable passing statistic with Jones the all-time leader in receptions and yards and closing in on Roddy White's TD tally. Upon these trying Falcons times (aka the last three seasons), this tandem of terrific has stayed the course, sharing a difficult spotlight as the faces of the franchise and putting up impressive numbers even if victories didn't correspond. It would seem that even amid some trade rumblings, Ryan and Jones are staying put in Atlanta. Ryan's somewhat quietly leading the NFL with 2,181 yards passing. Jones has produced 16 catches for 234 and a pair of touchdowns over the last two games, battling through an ailing hammy and now dealing with a hip injury. Regardless of what the future holds, they continue to provide a reason to watch the Falcons and appreciate their talents.
There's no shortage of standout wideouts in this one
There are few receivers in the history of the game who can boast better resumes than the aforementioned Mr. Jones. However, on Thursday, there's a cavalcade of dynamic receiving threats aside from Jones, each of them having produced better statistical success so far this season. Robby Anderson has been propelled by his Jets exodus and is turning in a sensational season amid his reunion with Rhule, as he boasts 46 receptions (tied for fifth in the NFL) and 640 yards receiving (second). Meanwhile, teammate D.J. Moore (567 yards; seventh) is averaging a resounding 18.3 yards per catch and is coming off a two-touchdown showing against the Saints. In the Panthers' win over the Falcons in Week 5, Moore had four catches for 93 yards and a score, while Anderson had eight catches for 112 yards – each of them unsurprising showings against a troubled Atlanta secondary. As for the Falcons' receiving corps, perhaps most surprising is that Jones isn't leading the way. Calvin Ridley is becoming a force and has team-highs of 40 grabs, 615 yards (third in the NFL) and six TDs (second). The NFC South has become a haven for some very exciting and talented wide receivers and a collection of them will be on display Thursday.
Time is now for Panthers
Impressive as Rhule's first season has already been in many ways, if any playoff aspirations are to remain realistic, this is a win the Panthers need to have. With the midway point of the season having checked in, so too has a rough draft of the playoff picture. As the Panthers and Falcons open Week 8, there are nine NFC teams with better records than the Panthers (not including the NFC East first-place Eagles, who would earn an automatic postseason berth). Thus, finishing off a season sweep of the Falcons is a must given what lies ahead: The Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the next two weeks. Entering Thursday, Carolina has dropped two straight. A third consecutive loss heading on the road to Kansas City before welcoming the Bucs would almost certainly silence any playoff talk.