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New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers Preview and Prediction

Drew Brees

Drew Brees

NFC South supremacy and playoff positioning are both squarely on the line today when the New Orleans Saints pay a visit to the Carolina Panthers at 1 p.m. ET on FOX. The Saints (10-4) can secure both the division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs with their second win over the Panthers (10-4) in three weeks.

The Saints are coming off of a discouraging 27-16 loss to the Rams on the road, which only brought more attention to Sean Payton’s team’s struggles away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Meanwhile Ron Rivera’s Panthers rebounded from their loss two weeks ago in New Orleans by beating the Jets 30-20 at home, running their record at Bank of America Stadium to 6-1 this season.

3 Things to Watch

Two Weeks Ago…
The Week 14 Sunday primetime showdown between Carolina and New Orleans didn’t exactly materialize, as the Saints took control in the second quarter and never looked back, winning 31-13. Tied atop the NFC South entering this game at 9-3, the Saints did what they usually do – play really well at home – and the Panthers weren’t able to put up a lot of offense or stop Drew Brees and the passing game. Brees threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns against the sixth-ranked passing defense at the time, as the Saints scored touchdowns on four of five trips into the red zone. The Panthers converted on just one of two possessions inside the Saints’ 20-yard line, as Cam Newton threw for just 160 yards on 22 completions (4.7 ypc) and was sacked five times. Carolina led 6-0 after the first quarter, but New Orleans scored 31 unanswered points, including three touchdowns in the second quarter alone. The Panthers outgained the Saints 128-69 on the ground and won the time of possession battle, but the duo of Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham, who combined for 15 catches, 183 yards and all four touchdowns, were too much to overcome. New Orleans finished the night 7-0 at home and fully in the driver’s seat in the division.

Can the Saints Rebound Again?
New Orleans finds itself in familiar territory as all four losses have come on the road. The Saints are 7-0 at home, but just 3-4 on the road and have been beaten soundly in their last two games away from the friendly (and loud) confines of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Sean Payton’s team got off to a strong start on the road, winning their first two away dates in Tampa Bay (Week 2) and Chicago (Week 4). However, the Saints have won just one since, a 17-13 victory over lowly Atlanta in Week 12. The four road losses have been to the Patriots, Jets, Seahawks and last week to the Rams, with the last two being blowouts. Seattle and St. Louis beat New Orleans by a combined score of 61-23, as the Saints averaged 310 yards of offense in those two games, or nearly 90 fewer than they have been gaining on the season. The common factor in both of these games is defense, as the Seahawks held the Saints to 188 total yards of offense, the fewest in the Sean Payton era, and the Rams battered and bruised Brees to the tune of four sacks and three turnovers (2 INTs, fumble). Carolina’s defense is just as capable of doing what Seattle and St. Louis did, especially at home, as the Panthers are second in the NFL in both total (296.3 ypg) and scoring (14.9 ppg) defense. Entering this week, every time New Orleans has lost, it has gotten off the mat and won its next game. That was the case two weeks ago when the Saints returned from their Monday night beating in Seattle to defeat the Panthers. The difference here is that the previous three games following losses were played at home. This one is on the road, where the Saints have clearly had their issues, especially against teams that have solid defenses and can put pressure on the quarterback. So if the Saints want to continue their rebound trend today, seal up the division crown and guarantee themselves at least one home playoff game in the process, they will need to reverse another trend and prove that they are more than just a dome team.

Role Reversal
Two weeks ago, Carolina got a taste of some New Orleans home cooking, as the Saints dominated the Panthers on both sides of the ball, winning 31-13. This is nothing new for New Orleans, who has won 15 games in a row in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with Sean Payton (suspended for the 2012 season) on the sideline. Today, however, Carolina is the home team, and just like the Saints, the Panthers have been at their best at Bank of America Stadium. They are 6-1 at home, with their only loss being to Seattle, 12-7, in the season-opener. The NFL’s No. 2 defense, the Panthers are allowing less than 12 points and 290 yards per game at home. They also have a plus-eight turnover differential at home compared to plus-three on the road. The team’s offensive numbers are better at home too, with one of the most glaring statistics coming in the pass protection department. Cam Newton has been sacked 28 times on the road, the most of any quarterback. He’s gone down just 10 times in seven home games. Carolina also has seen an increase in the production of its ground game recently, which could be a big factor against New Orleans. The Panthers are averaging 139.5 yards rushing per game over their last four, which includes 131 against the Jets, the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense at the time. On the other side, the Saints have struggled against the run on the road, giving up an average of 136.4 yards per contest. Two weeks ago, New Orleans capitalized fully on its home-field advantage. Carolina would love to return the favor today by adding to the Saints’ road woes.

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New Orleans Key Players: Offensive Line
The Saints will have a new starting left tackle today as rookie Terron Armstead will replace Charles Brown. Brown was benched prior to the end of last week’s loss in St. Louis after committing a penalty that nullified a touchdown and partly due to the Rams sacking Drew Brees four times. Armstead and the rest of the offensive line will have its work cut out for it today, as Carolina’s defense is second in the NFL in sacks with 45. The Panthers got to Brees just twice in their first meeting two weeks ago; a big reason why he threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns and the Saints won 31-13. However, New Orleans is not the same team on the road as they are at home, and likewise Brees’ numbers also take a hit in games not played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. If the Saints want to have any success against the NFL’s No. 2 defense today, the offensive line must not only protect Brees, it also needs to find a way to help jumpstart a running game that’s averaging 58 yards rushing per game over the last three contests. With the playoffs approaching, Sean Payton knows his team has to start playing better on the road. Fixing an offensive line that has shown some cracks in recent weeks is as good a place to start as any.

Carolina Key Players: Secondary
The Panthers are fifth in the NFL in passing defense (211.4 ypg) and have more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes (14) allowed. Opponents have completed better than 66 percent of their passes, but the Panthers have been able to limit the damage. Not surprisingly, the defense’s worst performance against the pass this season came on the road against New Orleans. Two weeks ago, Drew Brees completed 30-of-42 passes for 313 yards and four touchdowns. The Saints finished with just 69 yards rushing, but still managed to post 373 total yards of offense against the NFL’s No. 2 defense. New Orleans hasn’t been anywhere near as productive on the road as it has been at home. The Saints average 32.9 points per game at home compared to just 18.4 on the road. A win today and Carolina replaces New Orleans as the frontrunner for not only the NFC South title, but also the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs. For that to happen, however, the secondary will have to play much better this time against Brees and company.

Final Analysis

The NFC South title, No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye are pretty much all on the line today. New Orleans can clinch all three with a win, while Carolina can put itself in the driver’s seat by holding serve at home. The Saints have not played nearly as well on the road as they have at home, an attribute the Panthers would no doubt love to continue to exploit.

Drew Brees carved up the Panthers two weeks ago, but the Saints have done some reshuffling along their offensive line and have gotten next-to-nothing from their running game in recent weeks. On the other side, Cam Newton has been at his best at home and the Panthers’ defense wants to redeem itself for what happened in the first meeting.

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In the end, New Orleans puts up a good fight, but can’t muster enough offense against a stingy Carolina defense. The Panthers flip the script on the Saints and take control of the division, No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in the playoffs in process, setting things up for an intriguing finish next week.

Carolina 23, New Orleans 20