It's no secret that the Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers have been in rebuilding mode the past two seasons, and Sunday's clash in Atlanta figures to be an interesting barometer for how far each team has come.
Last season, Atlanta had the third-best rushing attack in the NFL and averaged 159.9 yards per game. Only Chicago (177.3) and Baltimore (160.0) averaged more yards in the league.
In contrast, Carolina averaged only 306.2 yards of offense per game, which ranked 28th in the league.
Both teams had their moments defensively, but the Falcons (362.1 yards per game) and Panthers (350.2) finished 27th and 22nd, respectively, in the NFL in total defense. The two teams also had trouble getting to the quarterback, as Carolina tied for 25th in the league in sacks with 35, while Atlanta ranked 31st with 21.
But the success of both teams this season will likely come down to one thing: quarterback play.
The Falcons' Desmond Ridder started four games down the stretch last season and guided Atlanta to a 2-2 record, which included wins over Arizona and Tampa Bay to close the season. He completed 73 of 115 passes for 708 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 64 yards on 16 attempts.
With the QB1 position locked down in his second season, Ridder is out to prove he can be the Falcons' franchise quarterback for years to come.
"I feel like I have to prove myself to myself," Ridder said. "I know what I can do, both mentally and physically. Now, I have to go do it."
Carolina is optimistic that outside linebacker Brian Burns, who "looked great" in practice Wednesday according to defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, can help squeeze Ridder into mistakes on Sunday. Burns and the Panthers are locked in an active contract dispute that only grew spicier this week with the record contract signed by San Francisco 49ers pass rusher Nick Bosa.
In addition to Ridder, Atlanta features a number of young, talented skill position players such as wideout Drake London, tight end Kyle Pitts, tailback Tyler Allgeier and dynamic rookie running back Bijan Robinson, the No. 8 overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Robinson, who won the Doak Walker Award (given to the nation's top college running back) and was a unanimous All-American last season, could be poised for a big year running behind one of the NFL's better offensive lines.
Atlanta's front office also made a concentrated effort to improve on defense in the offseason by adding defensive tackles David Onyemata and Calais Campbell, linebackers Kaden Ellis and Bud Dupree, safety Jessie Bates III and cornerback Jeff Okudah.
The aforementioned defenders will be getting their first look at Carolina starting quarterback Bryce Young, the top pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Young, the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner while at Alabama, completed 65.8 percent of his passes and threw for 8,356 yards and 80 touchdowns — with only 12 interceptions — in a highly successful three-year stint at quarterback for the Crimson Tide.
Young was recently named a team captain in a vote by the Panthers' players and it may be a good sign of what's to come in coach Frank Reich's first season in Carolina.
"It's a real honor," Young said about being named a captain. "It's something I definitely don't take lightly. It means a lot to me to be a captain. And I'm just super grateful for my teammates for just accepting me and allowing me to come in."
Starting wideouts DJ Chark (hamstring) and Adam Thielen (ankle) have been nursing minor injuries, while third-year pro Terrace Marshall Jr. has been dealing with a back injury.
—Field Level Media