Are Falcons ready for NFC South takeover?

It’s early, but a victory over Carolina, the three-time defending division champion, would legitimize the Falcons’ fast start before they hit to road to Denver and Seattle.

Carolina has dominated the NFC South the past three seasons, but after getting manhandled by Minnesota last week, the Panthers appear to have major flaws.

The Falcons will find out if they’ve closed the gap.

Since they passed the NFC South title to Carolina at the end of the 2013 season, the Panthers have held onto it.

“That’s got me mad,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “That’s got me hot.”

Weatherspoon wasn’t with the Falcons last season, when the Panthers threw a middle-of-the-game party on the sidelines and in the stands after racing to 28-0 lead with 14:43 left in the second quarter on their way to a 38-0 shellacking.

Two weeks later, the Falcons stood up to the bullies on the block. They defeated the Panthers 20-13 at the Georgia Dome behind a 178-yard day from wide receiver Julio Jones and a spirited effort by the defense.

It was the Panthers’ only loss before losing to Denver in Super Bowl 50.

“They’ve been doing it,” Weatherspoon said. “So, you’ve got to knock them off. What an opportunity that we have to go in our place and try to get a good feeling in that building.”

The only problem: The Panthers are in a foul mood after losing their opener on a missed 50-yard field goal and then to Minnesota last week.

No one was dancing on the sidelines during the Vikings’ 22-10 victory.

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was about as surly this week as he was he was pouting after the Super Bowl loss with a towel over head.

“Yeah, I’m going to want to talk because we are going to win,” he said. “I mean that’s the plan. We play this game to win football games. I can’t sit up there and tell you that I’m going to lose and be ready to talk. I don’t like to talk after losing.”

Jones is expecting a tough battle.

“They are going to give us their best shot,” he said. “We have to be prepared for that. But it starts with us. Everything starts with us.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan doesn’t believe the team is impressed by the defending NFC champions.

“We feel like if we play our best ball, we can go toe-to-toe with anybody,” said Ryan, who told the Panthers to “get the (expletive) off my field” after a last-second victory in September 2012.

Jones won’t have to contend with the annoying Josh Norman, who was released by the Panthers and signed by Washington over the offseason. Rookie James Bradberry and veteran Bene Benwikere started at cornerback last week.

Jones likes Bradberry, who played at Samford.

“He’s just young right now,” Jones said. “You can see the potential that he has. He’s a very long corner. Great hands. Great ball skills. We just have to be ready for everything they throw at us. Of course, their front seven is one of the best in the league.”

The Panthers will be without running back Jonathan Stewart. Cameron Artis-Payne, Fozzy Whittaker and Mike Tolbert are being used to replace Stewart. The Falcons also are prepared for Newton’s designed runs.

In the regular-season opener, Denver went after Newton with high shots to his head. The Falcons are going to attack low.

“You have to wrap up his legs,” Weatherspoon said. “He’s not going anywhere without his legs.”

Even though Newton is coming off the fourth-lowest passer rating (47.6) of his career, the Falcons still respect his passing.

“Throwing the ball, he’s got a hell of a lot better,” Weatherspoon said. “It will be a challenge. He’s the MVP.”

The Falcons must contain Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen.

“You study the tape and see what he likes to do,” Weatherspoon said. “He doesn’t do a ton of routes. That’s one thing about their offense, their passing is off of the run. They want you to be real physical against the run and then they throw it over you to the second level.”

The Falcons studied what Minnesota did to Newton, who held the ball too long and was sacked eight times.

After the loss, Scott Fowler, the columnist of The Charlotte Observer, wrote, “The Panthers looked lethargic, confused and not very talented.”

The three-time defending champs may have lost their swagger.

“Are you kidding me?” Weatherspoon said. “Anytime that you’ve got a quarterback like the one they have, he leads their team. The way their defense plays, you’ve got to come with it when you play Carolina. We are not too much worried about what people are saying.”

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