Falcons at Panthers: 5 what ifs . . .

As the 10-2 Falcons prepare to meet the 1-11 Carolina Panthers in a game that could help Atlanta clinch a playoff berth, what if …

1. Carolina's Jimmy Clausen has a breakout game. Clausen, the rookie from Notre Dame, has struggled mightily. He is the NFL's lowest-ranked quarterback with a passer rating of 55.3. He has thrown 169 passes since last throwing a touchdown pass to running back Jonathan Stewart on Oct. 3.

Clausen is 0-6 and has thrown six interceptions, and two of them have been returned for scores. The Panthers are last in the league in scoring at 12.8 points per game, total yards at 261.2 and passing yards at 157.3.

Last week, Clausen showed signs of coming around, leading the Panthers to a 14-0 start before the Seahawks scored 31 unanswered points. He's still learning how to put an entire game together.

Clausen was supposed to sit and learn this season from Matt Moore, but Moore suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against New Orleans on Nov. 7.

Clausen knows he'll have a tough battle against the Falcons' defense, which is ranked 19th in the league.

"Starting with their front seven, they get to the passer really well and try to disrupt the run game," Clausen said. "Their linebackers fill the gaps real fast. The secondary is just a quick secondary [that] gets to the ball real well and makes a lot of plays.”

2. Falcons running back Michael Turner turns in a big game. With inclement weather in the forecast, the Falcons will likely lean heavily on Turner against the Panthers. The Panthers also give up 133.1 yards rushing per game, which ranks 27th in the league.

Turner, who eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark last week, returns to the scene of his 2009 ankle injury. Last season, Carolina cornerback Chris Gamble hit Turner low and forced him to miss the rest of the season with a high right ankle sprain.

Turner holds a grudge against the Panthers for knocking him out last season.

"I just wanted to come back and be productive," Turner said. "This team needs me here. We need everybody here. If everybody stay healthy, we'll be fine."

Turner might have to carry most of the load with Jason Snelling and Antone Smith dealing with hamstring injuries. He might get some help from Ovie Mughelli and Gartrell Johnson III.

"Our guys are focused and ready to step up when needed," Turner said.

3. The Falcons return unit continues to dominate. The return team has been doing a good job of opening creases for return man Eric Weems.

Wide receiver Brian Finneran, a 10-year veteran, plays a key role as the up-back and has to block anybody who breaks through the wedge.

Defensive end Chauncey Davis, a six-year veteran, is part of the wedge with rookie defensive tackle Corey Peters.

Weems is currently second in the league with a 28.1 yard average on his kickoff returns.

It's an eclectic mix of young and old players who have banded together.

“It’s important to have your best players out there, but the thing that you have to guard against sometimes is someone getting hurt that will be contributing on the offensive or defensive snaps," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

Finneran, who recently replaced Mughelli as the up-back, threw a couple of blocks on Weems' record-setting 102-yard return last week at Tampa Bay.

"We were not performing as well as we would have liked four weeks ago so we made some changes in terms of our personnel and brought some of the older players back into the fold," Smith said. "I think it really energized our special-teams unit and the guys that we put in have been able to make some plays. It has also ramped up the energy level of some of our younger players."

Smith also cited cornerback Christopher Owens, a second-year player, for stepping up his special-teams play.

4. Matt Ryan gets back on track. Ryan is coming off his worst passing game of the season and has not played well in two losses in Carolina.

"That's been a tough place for us to play the last couple of years," Ryan said. "We've struggled when we've went up there. We know that it's going to be a tough game again. It would be a nice time for me to get my first win up there."

Ryan's 62.8 passer rating against Tampa Bay was his lowest of the season. His previous low was 67.3 against San Francisco on Oct. 3. The rating against the Bucs was his lowest since he had 57.4 at Carolina 13 months ago, in a game the Falcons lost 28-19. He threw only one interception, but was 22 of 41 for 224 yards passing.

In 2008 at Carolina, Ryan had a passer rating of 60.8 in a 24-9 loss to the Panthers.

"It's still a good defense," Ryan said. "They've got some talented guys that I've played against for a number of years and know just what they are capable of doing when they go out there and play."

Ryan considers Carolina linebacker Jon Beason one of the better linebackers the Falcons will face. "He's a talented player who can make some plays," Ryan said.

5. Mughelli continues as a pass-receiving threat. Mughelli had a 17-yard touchdown reception last week where he jumped over a player at the 8-yard line and then somehow made his way to the end zone.

"That was a really impressive play by Ovie," Ryan said. "He's done that a number of times for us this year."

It was the second game in a row that Mughelli had a key reception.

"He's been big for us this year at certain times," Ryan said. "If we get him up and going in the passing game, that helps."