Cam Newton and the Panthers hope to get their first win in four weeks when they host the Saints to kick off Week 9 in the NFL
A surface glance at this matchup between the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers would indicate that a boring clash of NFC mediocrities is in store, as the NFL Network takes over “Thursday Night Football” broadcasts. But a look at the standings reveals that the top spot in the NFC South is actually on the line. It's true — one of these teams is likely to make the playoffs, and the winner of this one takes a giant step toward that goal.
After a 2–0 start, the Panthers are 1–4–1 and coming off of a disappointing 13–9 home loss to Seattle in a game that was theirs for the taking. Looking at recent results, the Saints (3-4) would seem to have the upper hand, since they're coming off their best performance of the season, a 44–23 win over Green Bay. But New Orleans must venture away from the friendly, comfy confines of the Superdome, and Sean Payton's Saints have not exactly been kings of the road.
New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: New Orleans -3
Three Things to Watch
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1. New Orleans' Road Woes
It's becoming a sadly familiar refrain for Saints fans: The team is great at home, but take one foot out of New Orleans and they become the Raiders. The numbers are stark — 3–0 at home, 0–4 on the road this season, after going 3–5 away from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in 2013. The hopeful thing, though, is that the Saints' road games have been competitive; they led in the fourth quarter in three of the four losses. "You look at how we've lost three of those four road games and you say, `We made some critical errors at the end,’" said tackle Zach Strief. "It's not that we were getting dominated on the road." But until the Saints close the deal on the road, this bit of futility is going to follow them like a black cloud.
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2. Can Cam Reverse the Trend?
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's numbers have been on a season-long decline. After posting a 100.2 passer rating in a September win over Detroit, Newton has seen his stats and his production plummet, hitting a season-low 61.0 passer rating in the loss to Seattle. A contributing factor: a troublesome ankle that has impacted Newton’s production as a runner. A year after posting six rushing touchdowns, Newton has found the end zone on the ground only once so far this season and has seen his yards per carry average dip by a yard (5.3 to 4.3). A New Orleans pass rush that was invigorated against the Packers — four sacks and 13 hurries — will look to keep the big-bodied Newton in the pocket and get him to the ground a few times.
3. Saints’ Renewed Rushing Attack
The Saints' reliance on Drew Brees and the passing attack has been well documented. But New Orleans has seen a rushing renaissance in 2014. The Saints are averaging 133 yards per game on the ground, seventh in the NFL, and rank second in the league with 5.1 yards per carry. That makes this a tough matchup for the Panthers, who are surrendering 5.2 yards per carry (28th in the NFL). Mark Ingram exploded for 172 yards rushing against the Packers, and the Saints would no doubt love to get similar production from the former Heisman Trophy winner this week.
The numbers seem to favor New Orleans, but the Saints' road futility is starting to embed itself in the franchise's DNA, and that's not a positive indicator heading into a critical division matchup on the road. The powerful New Orleans offense seems to have difficulty protecting the football away from home, and Carolina has been highly adept at forcing miscues (14 on the season). Plus, Drew Brees has struggled in his last two visits to Carolina, tossing four interceptions and posting a 73.1 passer rating. Look for miscues to make the difference in this one.