ATLANTA — With so much to protect, the Atlanta Falcons are wary about playing a Carolina team with so little to lose.
The Falcons have much on the line: the NFC South championship, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
The Panthers are headed to the Georgia Dome with little to shoot for, except sending coach John Fox out with a win.
Falcons receiver Roddy White's eyes grew big when asked how seriously the Falcons are regarding the last-place Panthers (2-13).
"Very seriously," White said. "This is for all the marbles. This is for the No. 1 seed. We've got to go out there and play real well and get us a W to set ourselves up for where we want to be."
The Falcons (12-3) claimed an almost-casual 31-10 win at Carolina on Dec. 12. Those still-fresh memories don't ease White's concern.
"They're going to throw everything at us," said White of the Panthers. "That's going to be the tough part, playing a team that has nothing to lose."
White and other Falcons players said the Panthers will be motivated to spoil Atlanta's season. If the Falcons lose and New Orleans beats Tampa Bay, Atlanta would lose the division title to the Saints, lose the first-round bye and lose home-field advantage.
"It's a division opponent and possibly their coach's last game," said Falcons running back Michael Turner. "They're probably going to come out and try to send him off right. On top of that they get to spoil something that we've been working hard for."
Fox has said little about his emotions after nine years as Carolina's coach. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson hasn't publicly said he won't try to retain Fox. But it's clear this will be Fox's final game after a stint that included the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
When asked about his personal feelings, Fox said "It'll be another road trip to the Georgia Dome. We'll see what happens after that."
Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said this will be more than just another road game.
"I've got a special place in my heart for coach Fox," Munnerlyn said. "I go out there and lay it all out on the line for him every Sunday."
Asked about his team's motivation in the game, Fox said, "We haven't won on the road this year. We haven't beaten a division team this year. Like to finish off the right way and definitely be competitive in the game."
Richardson declined to extend Fox's contract after Carolina's blowout loss to Arizona in playoffs following the 2008 season. Fox's contract expires Feb. 1.
"I wish we could have won more games," Fox said when asked if he has regrets. "This is new territory for me, being through this whether it be an assistant or a head coach."
Fox wouldn't speculate about his interest in another NFL job.
"I think right now it's been the end of a long, hard season," he said. "I'll evaluate that when the season is over, after Sunday."
Munnerlyn is already looking ahead to next season.
"We want to win. We want to win every game," Munnerlyn said. "Going out there, we know we don't have nothing to play for but ourselves and our coaches, because you never know what's going to happen next year. It'll be excellent to knock them guys down and start off 2011 right.
"We know how it feels to lose. Hopefully, next year will be a whole lot better because we don't want this nasty taste in our mouth."
The Falcons' eight-game winning streak ended with Monday night's 17-14 home loss to the Saints. Matt Ryan was held to 148 yards passing with one touchdown against the Saints.
Ryan was back at the team's practice facility on Tuesday morning.
"One of the things I've learned in my short time in this league is that win or loss, you have to get over the week before fast," Ryan said. "You have to learn from the wins and losses, but you have to get over them and start preparing for the next opponent. I think our team has done that. We were in here the next morning. Guys have done a great job in the meetings."
Ryan needs only two completions against Carolina to match Jeff George's club record of 336 set in 1995.
The loss to the Saints left the Falcons with much to achieve as they seek their first sweep of the Panthers since 2004.
"We're going to see a very dangerous football team because they don't have anything to lose," said Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson. "They can bring out all the gadgets and try some different things because they're trying to see what they have to look forward to next year.
"We plan on seeing a team that is going to go out and play as hard as they can because you want to end the season on a good note. It is a long time between now and the start of next season, so you don't want to end the season with another loss. We think we will get their best shot, which makes this team even more dangerous."
The Panthers don't have to worry about how a win could affect their position in April's NFL draft. They have already locked up the league's worst record and No. 1 pick.