NFL betting: Why the Panthers are the pick in an ugly NFC South matchup

Nobody expected the NFC South to be the most competitive divisional race. The 2-7 Carolina Panthers are on their second head coach and third starting quarterback through nine games. That tells you all you need to know about how things are going in Carolina. Yet, despite crashing and burning the first half of the season, they still find themselves only two games out of first place. They get an opportunity to close the gap even more as they host the Atlanta Falcons tonight on "Thursday Night Football."

Atlanta at Carolina (+2.5)

When these two teams faced each other just two weeks ago, Atlanta edged out a 37-34 win at home. The game combined for only 34 points through the first three quarters. Then chaos ensued in the fourth, as they put up 34 more, driving the game to overtime. It was an entertaining sweat for bettors as win probabilities took massive swings while each team failed to put the other away. They both traded game-changing mistakes at the most critical junctures, but ultimately the Falcons were able to capitalize and get the win. Despite the result, the game didn't convince me that Atlanta was the better team.

The Panthers get another shot at their NFC South rival as a 2.5-point dog this time. Carolina has been a modest 3-3 ATS in the underdog role, covering two of their last three. The Panthers are the only team that Atlanta has closed as a favorite against, and the Falcons failed to cover as 4-point favorites in that wild fiasco only two weeks ago.

I like Carolina to get revenge on a short week. From my perspective, Atlanta hasn't done anything to warrant being a road favorite. In the previous meeting, Carolina outgained Atlanta, 478-406, had more yards per play 6.5-6.1, earned more first downs (22-21) and was the more efficient team in the red zone (60%-33%). The market is slightly underrating the Panthers after QB P.J. Walker hit rock bottom against the Bengals defense. But Walker threw for over 309 yards against this Atlanta secondary that is still desperately missing cornerback A.J. Terrell.

Both teams will look to run the ball to keep their quarterbacks ahead of the sticks. Even with the Falcons having Cordarelle Patterson back, the Panthers can be equally successful, if not more, considering Atlanta's issues stopping the run. The Panthers rank eighth in rush EPA allowed, while Atlanta clocks in at 30th. The Falcons defense also allows the third-most explosive plays in the NFL, whereas Carolina has done a much better job of forcing teams to string together long drives. This game should play out much like the first three quarters of the first matchup, where points are at a premium and big plays will make the difference. I have much more confidence in Carolina to make key stops. Give me the home dog with the better defense.

Stats provided by clevanalytics, teamramnkings, rbdsm (90-10 WP)