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One season after the NFC South sent three teams to the playoffs, the division may be just as deep.

The Atlanta Falcons know they can’t afford to fall too far behind in the division as they prepare to play the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Atlanta made the playoffs at 10-6 in 2017 despite finishing third in the South, behind New Orleans and Carolina.

Now, coming off last week’s loss at Philadelphia , the Falcons (0-1) need to beat the Panthers to avoid falling two games behind only two weeks into the season.

Falcons coach Dan Quinn said the team that wins the NFC South this season “will have been in some fights.”

For Carolina and Atlanta, this is an early opportunity to establish a pecking order in the division.

“For us to have a division game … early in the season, I think it’s good for us and good for the division, too,” Quinn said.

A road win would be another strong statement for Carolina (1-0), which won its opener over Dallas.

Each team has lost key starters to injuries.

Carolina tight end Greg Olsen and as many as three offensive linemen could be held out. Olsen has a broken bone in his foot for the second straight year, but hopes to return this season and has not been placed on injured reserve.

Panthers right tackle Daryl Williams (knee) was placed on IR Wednesday, joining left tackle Matt Kalil (knee), who was put on IR before Week 1. Also, three-time Pro Bowl right guard Trai Turner was placed in the NFL’s concussion protocol on Wednesday.

“We are missing a Pro Bowler on offence,” said wide receiver Devin Funchess, referring to Olsen. “We are just here to play our game. Those guys don’t make up their whole team and Greg does not make up our whole team … I know for sure in our locker room we have the next-man-up mentality.”

The Falcons placed two key defensive starters , safety Keanu Neal (left knee) and linebacker Deion Jones, on injured reserve this week. Neal will miss the remainder of the season. The team hopes Jones will return, but he must miss at least eight games.

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