Sunday's matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers features a pair of NFC South teams hoping to be more offensive.
Last week, the Saints' offense imploded after halftime at home versus Tampa Bay. Five of their eight possessions in the second half ended in a turnover. Jameis Winston struggled to throw and move around as he was playing with multiple fractures in his back. The turnovers and Winston's limitations resulted in a 3-3 game entering the fourth quarter turning into a 20-10 Buccaneers victory.
The Panthers didn't fare any better on the road against the Giants. The offense was held under 300 yards again as, for the second straight game, Carolina lost on a late field goal. Matt Rhule's team has lost its first two games by a combined five points.
New Orleans leads the head-to-head series 29-26, but games played in Charlotte have been split (13-13). The Saints have won nine of the past 11 meetings and the home team won each game last season.
New Orleans (1-1) at Carolina (0-2)
Three Things to Watch
1. Which team can protect the ball?
The Saints committed five turnovers against Tampa Bay. That is the highest number in a game since Drew Brees tossed five interceptions in a loss at Atlanta in Week 13 of the 2012 season. In Week 1, New Orleans won the turnover battle 2-1, a key stat in their come-from-behind 27-26 road win against Atlanta.
Carolina enters this game with a minus-three turnover differential. Baker Mayfield threw an interception in the season-opening, 26-24 home loss to Cleveland, and last week the Panthers fumbled the ball away twice. The defense/special teams has yet to generate a takeaway.
Last season, the turnover margin played a significant role in the outcome of both contests. In Week 2, a 26-7 home win for Carolina, Winston threw two interceptions, both in Panthers territory, while Sam Darnold tossed just one pick. Then in Week 17, the Saints recovered a Darnold fumble deep in Panthers territory that set up a short field goal and then sealed the 18-10 win in the Superdome with an interception near midfield with less than a minute to play.
2. Panthers' pass rush vs. Saints' offensive line
New Orleans' offensive line has struggled to protect whoever has been lining up at quarterback, either Winston or Taysom Hill, who also is used at tight end. The line allowed four sacks for 35 yards in Atlanta. The Bucs sacked Winston six times for a total of 30 yards and tackled Hill once for a loss of two yards last Sunday.
The Panthers had just one sack in Week 1 but improved upon that with three of Daniel Jones last week. Winston is expected to play even with the injury, but it's highly likely he will continue to be hindered by it. This could really show if Carolina is able to get consistent pressure on him, which would really make him uncomfortable in the pocket and could lead to a mistake or two.
Last season, the Panthers sacked Winston four times at home in Week 2 but only got to him twice when the teams met in New Orleans in Week 17. Pass protection is always important, but it's even more critical this week given Winston's health.
3. Carolina's rushing attack vs. the Saints' rushing defense
Christian McCaffrey's 102 rushing yards last week marked the first time he has reached the century mark since Week 10 of the 2019 season. There never was any argument about how important he is to the Panthers' success on offense. After battling injuries for most of the past two seasons, McCaffrey's start has to be an encouraging sign, even if it hasn't helped produce a win yet.
More success could be coming for McCaffrey too — assuming an ankle injury that limited him in practice isn't too bad — as New Orleans' defense has been inconsistent in stopping the run so far. In Week 1, Atlanta piled up 201 rushing yards on 38 carries, led by Cordarrelle Patterson's 120 yards on 22 attempts. But last Sunday, the Saints held Leonard Fournette to 65 yards on 24 carries and Tampa Bay finished with 72 total yards on the ground.
McCaffrey only played in one of the two games against New Orleans last season. In Week 2 he ran for 72 yards and a score on 24 carries (adding five catches for 65 yards and another score) to help the Panthers win at home. He did not play in the Week 17 rematch in which the team totaled 88 rushing yards on 26 attempts.
For his career, McCaffrey is only averaging 3.2 yards per carry against the Saints with three rushing touchdowns in seven games. The 72 yards he got last season were the most in a single game vs. New Orleans.
Both teams are coming off of losses, but New Orleans arguably needs this game more. Not only do the Saints want to avoid a 1-2 start in divisional play, but they also play the Vikings next week in London. Another tough loss will only make that trans-Atlantic flight feel even longer.
Carolina is arguably just a couple of plays away from being 2-0. But instead, the Panthers have let two winnable games slip away from them in the fourth quarter. Should they lose another game, this one at home, an 0-3 start would only increase the temperature of the hot seat underneath head coach Matt Rhule.
Prediction: Saints 23, 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 gridiron-connoisseur.com and on YouTube.
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