As the calendar turns to January, a pair of NFC South rivals will face off on Sunday with far different goals to end the season.
The host New Orleans Saints (7-8) have an outside shot at the playoffs as they sit one game out of the postseason but need to leapfrog three teams to qualify. The Carolina Panthers (5-10), on the other hand, have a number of people auditioning to keep their jobs, including head coach Matt Rhule and quarterback Sam Darnold.
The Panthers' downward spiral continued last week with a loss at home to the Buccaneers. That marked their fifth consecutive defeat. Carolina failed to score in the second half and was held to a single-digit final score for the third time this season.
The Saints' heavily depleted roster and coaching staff struggled to do anything on offense against Miami. Ian Book played in his first NFL regular-season game, and it showed. In fairness to him, multiple important starters missed the game.
These NFC South rivals have an even series, with the Saints owning a narrow 28-26 lead overall and 14-12 edge in New Orleans. However, the Saints swept both meetings in the two previous seasons before the Panthers got revenge in a 26-7 Week 2 win this year.
Carolina (5-10) at New Orleans (7-8)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 2 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Will the returning players for the Saints make a difference?
The Saints were missing 21 players when they faced the Dolphins. At least 13 of those have cleared the NFL's protocols and should be available to play against Carolina. Some of those returning players, listed below, include important members from both sides of the ball.
Taysom Hill has played the most games of all the Saints quarterbacks this season. He has completed 54 of 97 passes for 649 yards, two touchdowns, and five interceptions. He has also rushed 53 times for 311 yards and five touchdowns.
Demario Davis started all 14 games before his positive test. He leads the team in tackles (63) and tackles for a loss (13) and also has the third-most passes defended (six).
Malcolm Jenkins has also started 14 contests this season. He is tied for fourth on the team in both passes defended (five) and solo tackles (48). He returned his only interception for a touchdown.
Adam Trautman has seen action in 11 games with eight starts. The second-year tight end is fifth among the Saints in both receptions (26) and receiving yards (245).
Kwon Alexander has played in 10 games and started six this season. His seven tackles for a loss rank third on the team. He has also defended two passes and intercepted one.
2. Can the Panthers piece together a running attack?
Carolina has compiled more than 160 yards on the ground only twice this season, both times in wins. In contrast, opponents have held the Panthers under 100 rushing yards in six contests, resulting in five losses.
Part of Carolina's struggles to run the ball stem from Christian McCaffrey's season-ending injury in the final game of November. Despite only playing in seven games this season, he still ranks second on the team with 99 rushes for 442 yards.
The Panthers are still searching for someone else to fill the void. Rookie Chuba Hubbard has been durable with 146 rushing attempts over 15 games, although he only has 509 yards and four scores. More disconcerting for Carolina is who ranks behind Hubbard: two quarterbacks.
Cam Newton has only played in six games yet ranks third on the team with 225 yards. Newton is tied with Darnold for the team-lead in rushing touchdowns with five apiece. Darnold also has the fourth-most rushing yards (196). No one else on the roster has accumulated more than 100 rushing yards during this season. Can the Panthers count on anyone besides a quarterback to run the ball effectively?
3. Will Sam Darnold be able to rekindle a fire in the Panthers?
Rhule has announced that Darnold will get the start on Sunday against New Orleans. Darnold has not started a game since Week 9 when he suffered the shoulder injury that eventually landed him on IR. Last week, he returned to the field for the first time, completing 15 of 32 passes for 190 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions in relief of an ineffective Newton.
Carolina has fared more successfully under Darnold's direction during this season. He guided them to a 4-5 start and completed 182 of 306 attempts for an average of 220.7 yards per game in those starts. However, he threw seven touchdown passes to 11 interceptions.
One of the victories under Darnold includes defeating the Saints 26-7 at home in Week 2. He connected on 26 of 38 passes for 305 yards and one interception. That effort marked his highest passing yardage in any game this season and his second-highest completion percentage.
The Panthers already picked up Darnold's fifth-year option for $18.9 million next season, but there's no guarantee that he'll have a starting job. If he plays well down the stretch, though, he may persuade them not to draft a quarterback.
What is the motivation for the Panthers? Does Darnold need to prove that he should remain on Carolina's roster for next season? Does Rhule need to win, improving his team's win total over last season, to stay off the hot seat going into next year? Are any running backs auditioning to be a possible full-time complement for Christian McCaffrey?
The Saints' motivation stands out much clearer. They remain in contention for the playoffs. In order to reach the postseason, they must win out and then hope for the results of others to end in their favor.
Prediction: Saints 16, Panthers 10
— 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.