Don't expect to see Drew Brees under center
The Carolina Panthers have been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Despite so much promise for fans, they turned from a contender for the divisional title to a team imploding after losing seven straight games.
The Saints, however, have secured home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs. Their win at home over the Steelers last Sunday accomplished that. This game has no bearing on the Saints’ post-season other than serving as playing time for reserves.
Carolina leads the all-time series 24-23. For games played in New Orleans, the Saints hold a 12-11 advantage. The Saints won all three meetings last season in addition to an earlier one this month.
Carolina at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 30 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Battle of backup quarterbacks
This contest could serve as an unofficial audition as the replacement for Drew Brees should a disaster occur and Brees cannot play in the future. Both Taysom Hill and Terry Bridgewater have taken a limited number of snaps as quarterback for the Saints. With Brees relegated to the bench this week, both quarterbacks presumably will divide time versus Carolina.
Bridgewater has appeared in four regular season games during his first year in New Orleans. His one pass attempt was incomplete. He has rushed the ball seven times for minus sevens yards. He has not started a regular season contest since the end of the 2015 season.
Although Hill is listed as the third-string quarterback, he has played in every regular season game. He has run the ball 34 times for 185 yards and a touchdown. He has completed three of seven passes for 64 yards with an interception and no touchdowns. He also has hauled in two receptions for one yard.
As for Carolina, Taylor Heinicke has been placed on injured reserve, due to an injured left elbow. With Cam Newton already shut down for the season because of a shoulder injury that leaves Kyle Allen to take over as he did against the Falcons. In his only appearance of the season, he completed all four pass attempts for 38 yards.
2. Do the Saints have enough offensive linemen to field a starting lineup?
Terron Armstead played for the first time since Nov. 11. His torn pectoral muscle had not healed enough to finish the game. He had to leave in the second quarter then tried to return in the third quarter. He definitely needs to rest in order to be ready for the playoffs.
Other New Orleans offensive linemen have issues that should keep them on the sidelines in the regular-season finale. Jermon Bushrod is listed as questionable due to an injured hamstring that caused him to miss the last game. Max Unger suffered a concussion just two weeks ago.
The Saints only have eight offensive linemen on their roster. If Armstead, Bushrod and Unger all ride the bench this week, some replacements will line up out of their usual spots. If any of the remaining five are unable to finish the game, the Saints would have to resort to plugging in a tight end to block exclusively.
3. Does either team care about winning this game?
The Panthers and Saints face each other again after having squared off two weeks ago in Charlotte. Going into that game, its outcome mattered for both teams. The Saints were still jockeying for playoff seeding. The Panthers still had an outside shot at a wild-card berth.
In contrast, this game has no such significance. The Saints already have home-field advantage. The Panthers have no chance to sneak into the playoffs.
The only differences between winning or losing seem rather secondary. The Panthers could avoid a second season with double-digit losses in the past three. The Saints could break the franchise record for most victories in the regular season, with 13, set by the 2009 Super Bowl winning team.
This game has the same aura of the last game of the preseason. Multiple starters for both teams will not play. The coaches will bench key components of their roster to avoid injuries in a meaningless game. The home crowd figures to be jovial but not rabid. It will feel more like a celebration of a phenomenal season in the stands while a glorified practice session is occurring on the field. Assuming more of Carolina’s starters will play than the Saints’, the Panthers will finally end their awful streak of futility.
Prediction: Panthers 20, Saints 16
— Written by John La Fleur, a contributor to AthlonSports.com, who focuses on the New Orleans Saints and Michigan State Spartans. He also frequently comments on other teams in the NFL and in NCAA football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur and read his viewpoints at gridironconnoisseur.wordpress.com and at gridiron-connoisseur.blogspot.com.