Panthers at Falcons: Joseph Person's three things to watch

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 28, 2013 

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Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez (88) concludes a hall of fame career in the NFL on Sunday. The Carolina Panthers need to keep him from getting loose in his finale.

STEPHEN DUNN — Getty Images

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    Carolina at Atlanta

    Where:

    Georgia Dome, Atlanta

    When:

    1 p.m.

    Watch:

    FOX (Kevin Burkhardt, John Lynch, Erin Andrews)

Farewell to Gonzalez

Tony Gonzalez, who revolutionized the tight end position during his 17-year career, will play his final game Sunday. And the Panthers will try to keep him from adding to his NFL records. Gonzalez, second behind Jerry Rice in all-time receptions, had a big first half (five catches for 77 yards and a TD) in the first meeting with the Panthers. But after the Panthers began jamming him at the line of scrimmage, Gonzalez managed one catch for 4 yards in the second half. The safeties and linebackers have to pay particular attention to Gonzalez in the red zone after allowing Saints tight end Jimmy Graham a jump-ball TD last week.

Who steps up for Smith?

The Panthers will be without their emotional leader and second-leading receiver when wideout Steve Smith sits with a sprained knee. Smith hasn’t caught as many deep throws as he has in years past, but he’s Cam Newton’s favorite target on third downs. No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell will have to prove he can get open when he’s the focal point of the coverage, while Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon have to play more than complementary roles. Look for tight end Greg Olsen, who had four catches for 66 yards in the Week 9 win against Atlanta, to be targeted on several third downs.

No cinch to clinch

Beat the Falcons and the Panthers clinch first place in the NFC South, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game. Everything changes with a loss and a Saints’ win against Tampa Bay. That would force the Panthers to go on the road as a wild card in the first round, likely to a cold-weather city like Philly, Chicago or Green Bay. The Falcons showed in their Monday night loss at San Francisco that they haven’t mailed it in yet. Atlanta players – and the Georgia Dome crowd – figure to be pumped up for Gonzalez’ send-off. The Panthers’ defense has to play with the same energy it did last week when it blitzed and harassed Saints QB Drew Brees all game.

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