For the third straight season, the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers will wrap up their regular seasons against each other. And for the third straight season, the Saints are headed towards the postseason while the Panthers have nothing on the line.
While Carolina (5-10) is well out of the playoff picture, the Panthers were able to halt their three-game losing streak last week at Washington. They jumped out to a 20-0 lead late in the first half and held off a late attempt at a rally for their fifth victory of the season.
The Saints (11-4), meanwhile, gave themselves a gift on Christmas, a record fourth straight NFC South title, by defeating Minnesota. Alvin Kamara, clad in festive red and green cleats (which he later got fined for wearing), visited the Vikings' end zone six times, which tied an NFL record. The win also made it four straight seasons with at least 11 wins for the Saints, the only team to accomplish that feat.
The Saints lead the all-time series, 27-25, although they have won seven of the eight most recent meetings. New Orleans even holds the edge in Charlotte, where they hold an advantage of 13-11. Let's break down this 53rd all-time meeting.
New Orleans at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 3 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Saints improvise a passing attack once again?
Injuries and quarantines have crippled New Orleans' aerial attacks in recent weeks. Drew Brees sat out four-plus games due to broken ribs. Wide receivers have missed games with disconcerting frequency as Sean Payton has been forced to pull inexperienced wideouts from the practice squad. As a result, the Saints compiled fewer than 300 yards through the air in nine straight games. That streak ended when they accumulating 319 passing yards on Christmas against the Vikings.
Emmanuel Sanders has served as the most dependable wide receiver in the four most recent games. He caught five passes for 39 yards at Atlanta. He only had three receptions but did compile 48 yards and score a touchdown at Philadelphia. In the absence of Michael Thomas, Sanders led the team versus Kansas City with four catches for 76 yards. Once again with Thomas out of the game, Sanders contributed four receptions for 83 yards, the most among the Saints' offensive players. Thomas won't play on Sunday and neither will Tre'Quan Smith or Deonte Harris, so once again it will fall to Sanders, tight end Jared Cook and rookies Marquez Callaway and Juwan Johnson to fuel the passing game.
2. Will the Saints be able to run the ball?
With a diminished passing attack in the past several weeks, the Saints have had to rely more on their running game. In their five most recent games, they have exceeded 200 yards on the ground three times, all resulting in victories. In their two defeats earlier this month, opponents held New Orleans to fewer than 100 rushing yards.
But on Sunday, the Saints will be without their three top running backs - Alvin Kamara, Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington - as well as fullback Michael Burton because of COVID-19 protocols. Kamara tested positive on Friday and the other three backs along with running backs coach were deemed close contacts and have been ruled out. That leaves wide receiver-turned running back Ty Montgomery, do-everything backup quarterback Taysom Hill, and practice squad member Tony Jones Jr. as the top options to run the ball against Carolina.
The Panthers proved to have an average run defense this season. They have allowed 118.7 rushing yards on average per game, 16th in the NFL. They are tied for 12th with five other teams by giving up 16 rushing touchdowns. They rank 17th in first downs allowed on the ground. But worst yet, they're fifth weakest in the league on a per-rush basis (4.7 ypc).
Carolina's defense has been victimized on the ground frequently in division games. Leonard Fournette compiled 103 yards and two touchdowns on the ground with only 12 carries in the Panthers' first matchup with Tampa Bay. In Carolina's first meeting with the Falcons, Todd Gurley gained 121 yards and a touchdown on just 14 attempts. In the rematch with Tampa Bay, Ronald Jones II ran the ball 23 times for 192 yards and a touchdown. And in their October game, Kamara carried the ball 14 times for 83 yards.
3. Mindset of both teams
The Panthers' surprising 3-2 beginning of this season feels like years ago. Carolina followed that unexpectedly positive start by dropping five straight contests. They have already lost double-digit games for the second straight season.
What would motivate Carolina to win this game? Matt Rhule is in his first season with the franchise so he should not fear losing his job despite this losing tally. Teddy Bridgewater has demonstrated his ability to replace Cam Newton, but the Panthers may consider drafting his successor. A victory would improve Carolina's record by one game compared to last season. Would Joe Brady be spurred to diminish the playoff seeding of his former boss, Sean Payton?
The Saints' motivation heading into this game is obvious. They must win in order to have a chance at the top seed in the NFC Playoffs. They need Green Bay to lose at Chicago and Seattle to win at San Francisco. Can a shorthanded Saints teams focus on defeating Carolina without being distracted by the scores of these other two games?
New Orleans still has a shot at the No. 1 seed in the NFC but it's not like Carolina can spoil things that much. Rather the Saints would like to enter the playoffs, whenever they start for them, with momentum and can do that by building off their performance on Christmas Day. Unfortunately, a depleted offense may make it harder for New Orleans to put this game away early so that Sean Payton can rest his starters, but the Saints should still be able to find a way to win in Charlotte.
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.