Panthers will face Falcons amid four-game losing streak

FLOWERY BRANCH – The Carolina Panthers started the season in fine fashion, but then things started to unravel.

After a 3-0 start, the Panthers have lost four consecutive games, including getting smacked around by the New York Giants in a 25-3 loss Sunday.

The Panthers (3-4) are set to face the Falcons (3-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

“They’ll be ready to go,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “They’ll be ready to go. They’re a physical defense.”

The Falcons are preparing for the Panthers, who started the season with a hot streak.

“Like everything in the NFL, there’s peaks and valleys,” Smith said. “Obviously they started the year really hot. Every game in the NFL is going to be a challenge. It’s a good football team. They’re really well-coached. It going to be a big divisional game.”

For now, the Panthers are rolling with Sam Darnold as their quarterback. He was pulled in favor of P.J. Walker in the loss to the Giants.

“Sam will start at quarterback this week,” Panthers coach Matt Rhule said to the Carolina media Monday.

Darnold, formerly of the New York Jets, has completed 153 of 249 passes for 1,684 yards and has thrown seven touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has a passer rating of 77.5.

Rhule openly discussed some of Darnold’s problems, which include throwing off his back foot. He noted that the Panthers have a system, and he expects Darnold to stay within the system and follow his progressions while reading the defense.

“If no one is open, run or check the ball down,” Rhule said.

The Panthers suspect that Darnold has been locking in on certain receivers and not going through his progressions.

It doesn’t help Darnold that running back Christian McCaffrey is out with a hamstring injury. McCaffrey, the No. 8 overall pick in 2017, is on injured reserve. He’s missed the past four games and missed 17 of the past 20 Carolina games.

Rookie Chuba Hubbard, who was drafted in the fourth round out of Oklahoma State, has started for McCaffrey.

He rushed 84 times for 309 yards (3.7 per carry) and one touchdown. He’s caught 17 passes for 110 yards.

The Panthers also are struggling along the offensive line. Brady Christensen was pitiful at left tackle against the Giants, and right guard John Miller suffered an ankle sprain and is expected to miss two to four weeks, according to the Charlotte Observer.

Christensen was starting for Cam Erving, who was out with an illness and a neck injury.

The Panthers gave up six sacks and 10 quarterback hits against the Giants.

“To be quite honest, Brady struggled,” Rhule said. “It was not what we needed it to be.”

Miller has started six of seven games.

The Panthers do have some defensive talent. Linebackers Shaq Thompson and Brian Burns are playmakers who have given the Falcons fits in the past. Thompson didn’t play against the Giants.

“They can put pressure on you on the edge with Burns, and we know that,” Smith said. “They’ve got good skill guys outside.”

Safety Jeremy Chinn led the Panthers in tackles with eight against the Giants.

Defensive tackle Derrick Brown, who’s from Lanier High and played at Auburn, can be disruptive. He had six tackles, a sack, two tackles for losses and a quarterback hit against the Giants.

“They play hard, you know, they fly around,” Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage said.

The Panthers also have added cornerbacks C.J. Henderson and Stephon Gilmore since the season started. Henderson played against the Giants, while Gilmore is still battling back from a torn quad injury.

“They like to keep everything in front of them,” Gage said. “So we have to take what we get and move the ball down the field. They’re a really good defense. ... They’ve shown a lot of different things.”

The Panthers normally play the Falcons tough.

The two teams split their matchups last season. The Panthers won 23-21 on Oct. 11 in Dan Quinn’s last game as coach. He was fired a few hours after the game.

Three weeks later, interim coach Raheem Morris led the Falcons to a 25-17 victory Oct. 29.

“That’s expected in divisional games,” Gage said.

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Atlanta Falcons Schedule

Eagles 32, Falcons 6

Buccaneers 48, Falcons 25

Falcons 17, Giants 14

Washington 34, Falcons 30

Falcons 27, Jets 20

Bye Week

Falcons 30, Miami Dolphins 28

Next Four Games

Panthers at Falcons, 1 p.m., Sunday, October 31

Falcons at Saints, 1 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 7

Falcons at Cowboys, 1 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14

Patriots at Falcons, 8:20 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 18