First place in the NFC South is up for grabs when Carolina and New Orleans renew acquaintances in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday. The Panthers (8-3) are riding a four-game winning streak after beating the Jets 35-27 on the road. The victory gave Carolina a four-game sweep of the AFC East and momentum heading into the rematch with the Saints.
New Orleans (8-3) saw its eight-game winning streak, which started with a 34-13 road victory over Carolina, come to an end last week on the west coast against the Los Angeles Rams. The Saints lost 26-20, although the game was not as close as the final score may indicate. New Orleans couldn’t slow down Jared Goff and the Rams’ passing game (354 yards, 3 TDs) and never got closer than three points after Los Angeles jumped out to a 10-0 lead.
These divisional rivals have split their head-to-head series three of the past four seasons. The Saints struck first in Week 3, beating the Panthers 34-13 behind three touchdown passes from Drew Brees and a strong defensive effort that harassed Cam Newton (3 INTs, 4 sacks) all afternoon.
Carolina at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 3 at 4:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Saints -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Help on the way for the struggling Saints’ secondary?
The threshold for New Orleans’ defense is 300 passing yards. When the Saints have held opponents to that number or fewer, they have won all eight games. In their three defeats this season, they have allowed 341, 436 and 327 passing yards, respectively.
That last total occurred this past Sunday in Los Angeles. Part of the poor showing was due to the absence of both starting cornerbacks, Marshon Lattimore and Ken Crawley. They returned to practice mid-week although they are listed as “questionable” for the game. The defensive back depth was further weakened by Marcus Williams’ groin injury sustained versus the Rams. He had to leave that game and has not practiced this week.
2. Which version of Cam Newton will appear in the Superdome: Superman or Subpar-man?
Superman has led the Panthers to eight wins. He has thrown for more than 200 net yards (after sack yardage deducted) in only four games but three of those were victories. When he has accounted for at least two touchdowns, either by running or passing, the Panthers are 4-1. They have won all five times that his quarterback rating has exceeded 80.
When Newton has been subpar, the Panthers have struggled. They have split their six games when he throws at least one interception. They are only 3-2 during games in which opposing defenses sacked him three or more times. In three wins, Newton had fewer than 200 passing yards and 50 rushing yards. However, Carolina’s defense bailed him out in those three games by holding the opposition to three points.
In the first meeting, the Saints limited Cam Newton to 167 gross passing yards. That amount does not include the 28 deducted for sacking him four times. That stinginess, combined with three turnovers, smoothed the path to domination in Charlotte. Will the Saints be able to replicate such an effort in this rematch or will Superman emerge from the visitors’ locker room?
3. Status of Greg Olsen
Olsen (right) returned last Sunday after missing eight games due to a broken right foot. Unfortunately, he re-aggravated the injury and did not play in the second half. He did not practice Wednesday or Thursday and figures to be listed as “questionable” on the injury report, at best. Head coach Ron Rivera did indicate that Olsen doesn’t necessarily have to practice to play.
Olsen’s presence would bolster the Panthers’ chances of victory. He has caught at least three passes for 30 yards in every game against the Saints during the previous three seasons. In those six games, he averaged nearly seven catches for 82 yards. He also caught three touchdowns. Given Newton’s erratic performances this season, he needs a reliable target like Olsen.
The Saints may be catching a break once again in terms of Cam Newton’s fitness to play. In September, he was limited by a shoulder injury. This time, the thumb on his throwing hand is injured. If the Panthers struggle to move the ball through the air, that limitation plays to the strength of New Orleans’ defense.
The stakes for this game are enormous. The winner will leap into the driver’s seat of the NFC South heading into the final four games of the regular season. With a victory, the Saints would hold the first tiebreaker over the Panthers. Meaning, should the Saints drop one of their final four games, they would still win the division title even if they are tied with Carolina in the standings after Week 17. If Carolina wins this game, the Panthers need only to sweep their remaining games to win the NFC South without needing help from anyone else.
Those who tune in to watch should expect a much closer contest compared to the one played in September, but ultimately the same result.
Prediction: Saints 27, Panthers 20
— 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.