With the division title clinched, New Orleans looks to stay in the lead for the top seed in NFC when the Saints take on the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte on Monday night. New Orleans (11-2) also is hoping for a better start after the offense failed to score a touchdown in the first half last week against Tampa Bay. Carolina (6-7) has lost five in a row and needs a win or risks falling too far down the pecking order for the second wild-card spot.
Fortunately for the Saints, their recent offensive struggles didn't cost them two weeks in a row. After trailing 14-3 at halftime, a blocked punt by Taysom Hill sparked four straight scoring drives as New Orleans went on to beat the Buccaneers 28-14 last Sunday. The win coupled with the Rams' loss in Chicago put the Saints back atop the NFC courtesy of their head-to-head win in Week 9.
Week 9 also was when the Panthers trailed their division rivals by just one game. But a 52-21 loss in Pittsburgh in Week 10 sent Carolina into a tailspin. While blowouts are tough to swallow, the Panthers' last four losses have been by a touchdown or less.
These two teams will meet again in Week 17 to close out the regular season. The Saints have won four of the past five matchups, including all three (beat Carolina 31-26 in the NFC Wild Card Game) last season.
New Orleans at Carolina
Kickoff: Monday, Dec. 17 at 8:15 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -6
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Panthers corral Alvin Kamara?
Kamara has served as the bell cow for the Saints’ offense. His dual-threat capabilities have contributed to him posting 100 yards from scrimmage in seven games thus far. He leads the team in rushing with 793 yards and 11 touchdowns and is second on the team in receiving (591 yards, 4 TDs). Kamara is someone head coach Sean Payton can line up anywhere in the formation and use however he sees fit.
Similar to Carolina running back Christian McCaffrey, the Panthers must always account for Kamara when he's on the field. It may not seem like much but when he rushes for 40 or more yards, New Orleans is 10-0. Kamara teams with Mark Ingram (519 yards, 5 TDs in 9 games) to give the Saints a potent 1-2 punch in their backfield.
While Carolina obviously will have to contend with Drew Brees, the Panthers need to continue their good work against the run. When holding opponents under 90 rushing yards, Carolina is 4-1. Making New Orleans one-dimensional on offense, especially on the road, should improve the Panthers' chances on Monday night.
2. What do the Panthers need to break out of their funk?
Carolina has lost five in a row, but that streak is a little deceiving. After getting blown out by Pittsburgh (52-21) in Week 10, the four most recent losses have come by a total of 17 points. Part of the problem during this stretch has been an offense averaging 20.8 points per game.
Turnovers certainly haven't helped. The Panthers have turned it over nine times during this stretch while generating just three takeaways. Through the eight games of the season, they were sporting a plus-three margin.
Cam Newton has thrown at least one interception in five straight games and nine total during the losing streak, but he's not alone in needing to play better. For Carolina to beat New Orleans, who has been getting the job done on both sides of the ball pretty much all season, it will need a well-rounded effort of its own.
3. Will the Saints’ defense continue to shine?
Defense is not the first thing you think of when it comes to New Orleans, but that side of the ball is just as responsible for the team's success this season. Yes, Brees and company continue to do their thing, ranked second in the NFL in scoring (34.4 ppg) and seventh in yards (389.0) per game, but the defense deserves plenty of credit.
For starters, the Saints are No. 1 in the league in rushing defense (77.6 ypg) and 10th in scoring (21.8 ppg). Over the last 10 games, New Orleans has held all but two opponents (Rams, Ravens) to no more than 20 points. That does not bode well for a Carolina offense that's struggling to score.
The Panthers are second in the league in rushing offense (137.4 ypg) so it will probably come down to strength vs. strength when Carolina has the ball. An effective running game will allow the home team to control the clock and keep the ball out of Brees' hands, a strategy that worked well for Dallas two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the Saints' defense will have yet another opportunity to show this team doesn't have to score a ton of points to win.
The Saints have already secured the NFC South title and are in the driver's seat for a first-round bye. But last week's loss by the Rams has New Orleans thinking of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. Win out and the road to the Super Bowl could go through the Big Easy.
Carolina has lost five in a row but is still in the hunt for the second wild-card spot. But with four teams bunched up, this is basically a must-win situation. One of the reasons why the Saints are 10-2 is that they have shown an ability to win in a number of ways, including on the road. The Panthers have demonstrated the ability to lose winnable matchups. Expect these trends to continue on Monday night.
Prediction: Saints 38, Panthers 13
— 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.