New Orleans may have already won the NFC South but there’s still work to be done on Sunday against Carolina. The Saints (12-3) are still playing for playoff seeding as a victory over the Panthers and a loss by either the Packers (at Lions) or 49ers (at Seahawks) gives them a first-round bye. Additionally, if New Orleans wins and Green Bay and San Francisco both lose, then the Saints will be the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
Last Sunday in Nashville, New Orleans fell behind Tennessee 14-0 in the first quarter thanks to some big plays from the Titans. But the Saints finally got their offense going, as a 61-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Jared Cook late in the second quarter trimmed the lead to 14-10. More offense followed in the third quarter as Alvin Kamara found the end zone twice. New Orleans built a 10-point lead and went on to post a 38-28 victory. This game also was memorable in that Michael Thomas broke Marvin Harrison’s single-season record for receptions with his 144th catch late in the fourth quarter.
Likewise, the Panthers (5-10) also fell behind 14-0 after the first quarter on the road. The difference for Carolina was that it could never get anything going on offense against Indianapolis. With rookie Will Grier making his first NFL start at quarterback all the Panthers could muster was a pair of field goals. The Colts ran for 218 yards and Nyheim Hines returned two punts for touchdowns in the 38-6 rout that extended Carolina’s losing streak to seven in a row.
Included in this stretch was a 34-31 loss to the Saints in New Orleans in Week 12. In that game, the Panthers fought back from a 13-point deficit in the third quarter to tie the score at 31 with a little more than nine minutes remaining, only to watch Brees march the Saints down the field to set up Wil Lutz’ 33-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired.
New Orleans at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 29 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Christian McCaffrey halt the Saints' defense remarkable streak?
New Orleans’ defense has controlled the opposition’s running game this season. The Saints are fifth in the NFL against the run, limiting teams to 94.7 rushing yards per game. They also have surrendered a total of 11 rushing touchdowns in 15 games.
What’s even more impressive is that New Orleans hasn’t yielded a 100-yard rushing game to a running back in more than two years. In Week 11 of the 2017 season, Washington’s Samaje Perine went for 117 yards on 23 carries. Since then no running back has cracked the century mark against the Saints, a span of 41 games.
During this streak, McCaffrey has faced New Orleans five times. In those games, McCaffrey has totaled 103 rushing yards with his best performance coming earlier this season when he finished with 64 on 22 attempts. McCaffrey remains a threat in the passing game (two 100-yard receiving games vs. Saints), but the fact that Carolina’s best player is averaging 3.2 yards per carry in his career (six total games) against this defense does not bode well for the Panthers’ chances.
2. Will the Saints reduce their penalties and continue to protect the ball?
One of the keys to New Orleans' success this year has been avoiding turnovers. The Saints sit atop the NFL with just eight giveaways. In 15 games, the quarterbacking trio of Drew Brees, Teddy Bridgewater, and Taysom Hill has combined to throw six interceptions in 549 pass attempts. As a team, the Saints have only lost two fumbles, the fewest in the league.
Carolina probably needs some takeaways to have a chance at pulling off the upset, but New Orleans just isn’t one to give the ball away. The Panthers have 14 interceptions on the season and one of those came against Brees in Week 12. But he hasn’t thrown one since with 13 touchdown passes (and one rushing TD) over his last four games.
One thing that could help Carolina hang around is penalties. The Saints are ranked near the top when it comes to accepted penalties (117, fifth) and yards penalized (992, sixth). New Orleans needs to tighten things up before the snap and cut down on the self-inflicted mistakes after it. Not so much for this game, but with the playoffs on the horizon.
3. Motivation for both teams
New Orleans knows full what’s at stake in this game, as the Saints must win to have any shot at a first-round bye or home-field advantage. The only reason Sean Payton will pull Brees or Kamara or any of his key starters is if New Orleans jumps out to a huge lead and puts this game out of reach. No one needs to tell the Saints what a huge advantage it will be to avoid Wild Card Weekend and ensure that their first playoff game is in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
On the other side, Carolina already fired head coach Ron Rivera so the players know that changes are coming this offseason. The Panthers have a chance to make New Orleans’ playoff path tougher but does this team really care about playing spoiler at this point? Instead, another loss could secure a top-five draft pick next year for a team that’s clearly headed for some sort of overhaul.
The Saints have every reason to take this game seriously. Although they cannot clinch a first-round bye in the playoffs on their own, they have to win if they even want a shot at missing Wild Card Weekend. Keeping tabs on Green Bay’s game in Detroit is probably unavoidable, but the Saints must maintain focus and try and deliver an early knockout punch to the Panthers.
Carolina's players probably want nothing more than to end this miserable season. The same goes for the fans, as chances are Bank of America Stadium will be at less than capacity and the breakdown will probably favor the visitors. Regardless of the atmosphere, New Orleans should have little trouble taking care of business on Sunday afternoon. The Saints will then play the waiting game to see how the NFC bracket shapes up.
Prediction: Saints 34, 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.