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Situational Edge
by Dennis Ranahan

There are a number of different ways to handicap a sporting event.

Some rely on talent as the trump card in the equation, others, like me, rely much more on the motivational factors to predict outcomes. There is another way to handicap an NFL game, and that is to ignore both the talent and motivation and simply bet on a situation.

Often, when attacking games from this angle, one will find themselves on a team that they instinctively don’t want. Which, by the way, is a good sign.

This week, we have one of those games, and if the name Taylor Heinicke doesn’t ring a bell, you are not alone. Heinicke graduated from Old Dominion, not exactly an institution known for turning out football talent. He is an undrafted quarterback who has kicked around the league during four seasons with three different teams; the Houston Texans, Minnesota Vikings and this year, the Carolina Panthers.

On Sunday, he will make his first professional start, and for our money, he is going to have a very good debut.

The Panthers host the Atlanta Falcons, who have had a horrible season but are favored on the road against the young quarterback. This young signal caller is perhaps not the most talented player in the league, perhaps not even known to most people in the NFL, but he steps into a situation on Sunday that is almost certain to provide him with his best opportunity to succeed.

Why?

It has little to do with talent or motivation, and everything to do with the situation.

The Panthers are looking to end a six game losing streak that has taken them from prime playoff consideration to an also-ran in just over a month. What happened to this squad that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl just three years ago, and now are home team underdogs to an opponent with a losing record?

First of all, it was all about Cam Newton.

Anyone who saw him struggle in last week’s nationally televised Monday Night Football loss to the New Orleans Saints had to know something wasn’t right. He was unable to fire his passes and even his one time strength of running the ball seemed sidelined for this anemic performance.

Still, even with Cam underachieving, the Panthers had a shot at beating the leader in their division, although the inept quarterback play was critical in Carolina surrendering a 12-9 decision to Drew Brees and company.

Now, with Cam revealing the ailments he has been playing with in recent weeks, the Panthers have made the decision to shut down their franchise quarterback in favor of Heinicke.

Heinicke for Newton. Doesn’t seem a fair trade, and an obvious downgrade in the Panthers chances this week.

Not really.

In fact, what you get with Heinicke behind center on Sunday, is a Panthers squad no longer needing to struggle under the ineffective play of Newton. Instead, you have a situation where the entire Panthers team, both offense and defense, will be motivated to compensate for the loss of their starting QB.

That is all it will take for Carolina to end a six game losing run while handing the Falcons something they are quite adept at collecting this season, another road loss.

Qoxhi Picks: Carolina Panthers (+2½) over Atlanta Falcons