First place in the NFC South and a potential first-round bye in the playoffs are on the line tonight when the Carolina Panthers travel to the Crescent City to take on the New Orleans Saints on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" at 8:30 p.m. ET. The Saints and Panthers are currently deadlocked at the top of the division with 9-3 records. This game will be the first of two matchups between the two teams over a span of three games.
New Orleans is coming off of a brutal 34-7 loss at Seattle in front of a national television audience on "Monday Night Football." Carolina's 27-6 win against Tampa Bay last Sunday was its eighth in a row. The Panthers will look to keep rolling, while the Saints hope to bounce back from a nightmarish performance and take a big step toward claiming their second division title in three years.
3 Things to Watch
Can the Saints' offense rebound?
Last week was not a good one for the New Orleans offense. The Saints' seven points scored against Seattle matched the fewest since Sean Payton (above) became coach in 2006, and the 188 total yards also were the fewest in his tenure. Drew Brees finished 23-of-38 with a season-low 147 yards passing. In fact, it's his lowest passing yardage in a game since 132 in 2006. Brees has thrown for under 200 yards just eight times in his nearly eight seasons as a Saint. Jimmy Graham, despite hauling in a franchise-record 12th touchdown pass, was held in check with just three catches for 42 yards. Graham was able to bring in just three of his nine targets Monday night. That 33 percent catch rate is the second-lowest of his career. New Orleans will have its hands full with the Carolina defense, which ranks sixth in passing defense and second against the run.
Carolina has won eight consecutive games thanks in large part to game-changing plays by its defense. The Panthers rank second in the NFC in takeaways and third with a +10 turnover ratio. Carolina has tallied 16 interceptions and recovered 10 fumbles. Carolina should be well equipped to face Drew Brees, who enjoys stretching the field vertically. The Panthers have the highest rate of interceptions per attempt on throws at least 15 yards downfield at 11 percent. They’ve picked off nine throws of that length this season, including at least one in four of the last five games. And they’ve only allowed a total of nine touchdown passes all season. The Saints have forced just two turnovers over the past five games. They had 15 takeaways in their first seven contests. Since that strong start, the Saints have dropped from ninth to 20th in the NFL in that category. If Carolina can force Brees into some mistakes then the Panthers' chances to pull the road upset will be vastly improved.
The Saints have outscored opponents by an average of 17.3 points per game at home, second only to the Broncos. Brees has been excellent in the comforts of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, as he's thrown 19 touchdowns to just three interceptions on the way to compiling a 6-0 record. Additionally, the Saints announced that an official from the Guinness Book of World Records will be present to record the crowd noise at key points during tonight's game. The Saints are aiming to set the record for loudest crowd roar at an indoor sports stadium by peaking at over 126 decibels. This is something the Superdome is definitely capable of, so look for the Panthers to use a lot of silent counts to combat the possible communication issues.
Key Player for Carolina: Luke Kuechly, LB
If the Panthers are to stop Sean Payton's offensive attack, it's going to start and end with the future Pro Bowler and reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year. Kuechly has 102 tackles this season after leading the NFL with 164 last year. He also has three interceptions and a sack. New Orleans hasn't seen Kuechly since his 13-tackle, two-pass breakup game in Week 17 of last season.
Key Player for New Orleans: Jimmy Graham, TE
Graham needs to rebound from a game that was clearly an aberration. Carolina has had trouble covering tight ends this year. In fact, the Panthers' opponents have completed 68 percent of their passes when targeting tight ends, which ranks as the 10th-highest against any team in the NFL. Tony Gonzalez and Rob Gronkowski each hauled in five or more passes with a touchdown in the past three weeks against the Panthers.
The Panthers have been playing well and have a tough defense, but don't bet on the Saints to have back-to-back down weeks. Sean Payton and Drew Brees should get things fixed as Jimmy Graham seems ready to have a monster performance. The Saints are simply too tough at home, especially with the crowd juiced for a primetime game, in which the fans are vying for a noise record.
New Orleans 30, Carolina 17