The Carolina Panthers enter Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints with a 3-3 record. Only hopelessly optimistic fans of the Panthers could have predicted that start. They have hung close in every game. The margin of victory or defeat has exceeded 10 points only once.
The Saints, meanwhile, enjoyed a bye-week after beginning this season 3-2. Alvin Kamara has been carrying the offense so far. The offense is still searching for a consistent second receiver. The defense has been plagued by penalties. Despite those limitations, the Saints find themselves just half of a game behind Tampa Bay with a victory over the Buccaneers.
The Saints lead the all-time series, 26-25. For games played in New Orleans, the Saints hold the advantage, 13-12. The Saints won both meetings last season, along with six of the last seven meetings.
Carolina at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 25 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Panthers generate a threat of a running attack?
Injuries have hampered Carolina's rushing attack. The Panthers lost All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey in the second game of this season. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel had carried the ball at least once in the first five games, totaling 15 rushes for 63 yards before injuring his knee.
Mike Davis has served as the primary replacement after carrying the ball just once for one yard in the first two games. Since then, he has become a workhorse, averaging 15.8 carries and 67.8 yards per game. He has also contributed 5.3 receptions for 34.8 yards on average per game.
But the Saints should be Davis' biggest challenge yet. New Orleans' defense has resisted opponents' running attacks quite effectively. The Saints ranked as sixth toughest in the NFL, allowing an average of 100.2 yards on the ground. They have permitted just 3.6 yards per attempt, fourth-lowest. Opponents have scored only four touchdowns against them, tied for sixth-fewest.
2. Will Emmanuel Sanders continue to increase his contributions?
The Saints needed a complement to Michael Thomas going into this season. After his high-ankle sprain in the season opener, another dependable wide receiver has become a necessity. Despite his expected return for this game, a hamstring problem has limited his practice time. A few players have tried to fill the void left by his absence. One of them seems to filled that role.
Emmanuel Sanders has emerged above others on the Saints' offense. His receiving yards have increased over the course of the season, from 15 in the season-opener to 122 in Week 5. In his most recent outing, he caught 12 passes, his first game with a double-digit number of receptions. However, he has only caught two touchdown passes so far.
3. Can Carolina protect the ball and force some turnovers?
Without their game-changing running back, the Panthers must not give the high-powered Saints' offense short fields. Carolina turned over the ball four times at Tampa Bay, two of which occurred in Panthers' territory. The Buccaneers converted three takeaways into 17 points in a loss by 14 points. Against the Bears, Carolina opened the game with an interception inside their own 10-yard line, which led to a touchdown for Chicago. Their final possession began with them trailing by only a touchdown but ended with Bridgewater's interception.
Taking away the ball has boosted Carolina's offense and its possibilities for winning. The Panthers won the turnover battle 4-0 against the Chargers, converting three takeaways in the first half into 12 points for a 21-16 victory. At Atlanta, they picked off a pass in the second half while clinging to a seven-point advantage for the sole turnover of the game and a win by that same margin.
The Saints have excelled when they have won the turnover ratio but stumbled after crucial giveaways. They intercepted two passes, including a pick-six, in the win over the Buccaneers. Taysom Hill's fumble near mid-field in the fourth quarter ended a possible scoring drive as the sole turnover in the game.
Carolina split its two divisional matchups earlier this season. If the Panthers have any hopes of winning the NFC South, they need to keep pace with both the Saints and Buccaneers. They trail New Orleans by half of a game and Tampa Bay by one game. The Panthers cannot afford to start a losing streak, especially against a divisional foe.
New Orleans has not been allowed to admit a significant number of fans into the Superdome. That restriction has limited the Saints' formidable home-field advantage. A raucous crowd would have helped hamper Tom Brady's and Aaron Rodgers' ability to call audibles and force offsides penalties. Nevertheless, the small number of fans in the stands will try their hardest and loudest to affect Teddy Bridgewater in the former Saint's return to the Superdome.
Prediction: Saints 30, Panthers 23
— 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.