After impressive season-opening wins with new starting quarterbacks, the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers will face off on Sunday with hopes of holding onto first place in the NFC South.
Sam Darnold gained a measure of satisfaction last Sunday by leading the Panthers to victory over his former team. He completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 279 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions, and his 102.0 passer rating was his best since November 2019.
The Saints, meanwhile, upset the Packers in stunning fashion behind five touchdowns from Jameis Winston. They held the Packers to their fewest points since the regular-season finale of the 2018 season. Aaron Rodgers suffered his fourth-lowest quarterback rating in his 219 games as a professional.
The Saints lead the series against the Panthers, 28-25, and their entire edge comes from a 14-11 mark for games played in Charlotte. The Saints swept both annual meetings with the Panthers in the previous two seasons.
New Orleans at Carolina
Kickoff: Sunday, Sept. 19 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Saints -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Christian McCaffrey vs. the Saints’ front seven
McCaffrey appeared to have returned to All-Pro form against the Jets. He accounted for 21 of the Panthers’ 27 rushing attempts and gained 98 yards while the rest of the team had only 13. He led the squad in receptions (nine) and receiving yards (89) to boot. Can he avoid the various types of strains that limited him to appearances in only three games last year?
The Saints endured a combination of departures, injuries, and suspensions before the season-opener. Nevertheless, the remaining New Orleans defenders squashed Green Bay’s rushing attack. They limited the Packers to 43 yards on 15 carries.
2. Can the Panthers pressure James Winston into making mistakes?
In the season-opener, Carolina sacked Zach Wilson six times for 51 yards in losses. The Panthers hurried him 10 times and pressured him 20 while forcing one fumble and picking off one pass.
Jameis Winston started his seventh season in the NFL with the second-highest quarterback rating, 130.8, of his 99-game career. Part of that excellent score stemmed from the absence of any interceptions, sacks, or hurries. The Packers only hit and pressured him three times for each.
The Saints may experience more difficulty in protecting Winston this Sunday. Center Erik McCoy left the season-opener due to a calf injury. He is listed as doubtful to play at Carolina. The team added six-year veteran Austin Reiter, although Cesar Ruiz will probably have to shift from guard to snap the ball for New Orleans.
3. Will Sean Payton continue to spread the ball around?
The Saints continued their planned use of two quarterbacks from the two previous seasons. Winston was spectacular as the starter: 14-of-20 passing for 148 yards and five touchdowns along with six rushing attempts for 37 yards. Taysom Hill made his expected appearances, particularly in short-yardage situations, completing his one pass attempt for three yards and gaining one yard in two rushing attempts.
New Orleans may have found a dependable complement for their running game, not counting the contributions from Winston. That welcome addition, Tony Jones Jr., carried the ball 11 times for 50 yards. Of course, Alvin Kamara led the team with 20 rushing attempts for 83 yards.
The most diversity of contributors to the offense could be found among those catching passes. Eight players caught at least one pass. Tight end Adam Trautman and wide receiver Juwan Johnson tied for the team lead with three receptions each. Wide receiver Deonte Harris led the team with 72 yards on 2 catches. Johnson caught two touchdown passes, while Harris and wide receiver Chris Hogan had one apiece. Finally, Kamara hauled in three passes for eight yards and a touchdown.
Will Payton be able to repeat such a diversified effort in Charlotte? Can Hill provide more carries and pass attempts after reverting to his jack-of-all-trades role? Is it feasible for as many tight ends and wide receivers to contribute receptions once again? If so, the absence of the most talented wide receiver, Michael Thomas, will hinder the Saints much less.
Starting the season at home against one of the weakest teams in the NFL provided much relief to the Panthers. They needed that break after losing nine of their final 11 contests in 2020 — it was their first win in a season-opener since 2018. Can Matt Rhule spur his team to a second win at home in as many attempts?
The Saints dominated a widely-predicted favorite to win the NFC. In order for the Saints to assume that role, they must not dwell on last Sunday. Instead, they need to focus on beating a divisional foe. It will not look as impressive as last Sunday, but no NFL team receives style points based on how they win.
Prediction: Saints 27, Panthers 17
— 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.