ATLANTA — With Teddy Bridgewater showing promise as a long-term replacement for Cam Newton at quarterback and Mike Davis flourishing as a short-term substitute for Christian McCaffrey at running back, the Carolina Panthers are emerging as a surprise in the NFC South.
It's just the sort of resiliency that has escaped the Atlanta Falcons, who have been unable to recover from a rash of injuries in their 0-4 start entering Sunday's matchup of division rivals.
Led by Bridgewater's accurate passing, the Panthers (2-2) have won two straight games. He has completed 73% of his passes, which ranks third in the NFL entering the season's fifth week. He is disproving doubters who may have thought he would be outclassed in a division Falcons coach Dan Quinn labeled "Quarterback South."
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason signing of Tom Brady — interestingly, Newton wound up filling his vacancy with the New England Patriots — has given the NFC South three of the league's top 10 career passers. Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, Brady and Atlanta's Matt Ryan are on that list, while Bridgewater, the former backup to Brees, was just trying to prove he could handle a starting role but has provided precision that has the Panthers winning.
Carolina's matchup with the struggling Falcons provides an opportunity for Bridgewater to add to his modest total of only four touchdown passes. Atlanta has allowed 13 already this season, the most in the NFL.
A Falcons secondary already depleted by injuries must overcome the loss of safety Damontae Kazee, who will miss the remainder of the season with a torn Achilles' tendon. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris hopes to have defensive end Takk McKinley and possibly safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal back.
"We've got to do a better job of surviving and advancing and playing the right way," Morris said.
Carolina's young defense, which starts three rookies, is on the upswing. After allowing a combined 67 points and failing to record a sack in their first two games, the Panthers gave up just 37 points in their past two and the unit is beginning to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Brian Burns remains Carolina's top pass rusher, but last week rookie Yetur Gross-Matos had a big sack to force a fumble that led to a touchdown in a 31-21 home win over the Arizona Cardinals.
"I thought the defense has really bought into playing hard and playing fast," first-year Panthers coach Matt Rhule said. "I'm beginning to hear that from people all across the league, like 'Hey, I watched your tape, you guys are flying around,' which is a credit to our players."
Davis should be busy with Reggie Bonnafon joining McCaffrey on injured reserve, each with a high ankle sprain, and Trenton Cannon as Carolina's only other experienced running back. Davis has 202 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns since replacing McCaffrey, including 21 catches on 23 targets for 146 yards and a touchdown.
Injuries have played a major role in a regression for an Atlanta defense that showed improvement in the second half of the 2019 season. The Falcons won their final four games of 2019 to save Quinn's job as team owner Arthur Blank brought the coach back for a sixth season.
Quinn's job status again is the subject of weekly speculation, though, and he hopes a turnaround begins with Atlanta's first division game.
"Honestly it really comes down to us and all of the things that we need to do," Quinn said. "We have to stop beating ourselves."
On Thursday, the Falcons signed safety J.J. Wilcox to the practice squad, adding depth. It is a return for Wilcox, who was signed by the Falcons last year before spending the season on injured reserve. The team released safety Jamal Carter from the practice squad on Wednesday.
Allen (elbow) and Neal (hamstring) and rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell (COVID-19 reserve list) were held out in Monday night's 30-16 road loss to the Green Bay Packers. Terrell was moved to the active roster on Thursday, but his status for the game is uncertain.
Cornerback Darqueze Dennard (hamstring) also is out, and backup safety Jaylinn Hawkins is recovering from a concussion.
Atlanta star receiver Julio Jones missed the second half at Green Bay after aggravating a hamstring injury that caused him to miss the previous game against the Chicago Bears. Jones has a history of finding a way to play after missing practice time because of injuries, but he is finding it is difficult to power through this one.