It is no exaggeration to label this game as the crossroads of the Saints' season. A loss in Charlotte would not just drop the Saints to 0-3. Since all losses would have occurred within the conference, the prospects of securing a wildcard spot would be weakened. It would also put the men in black and gold at 0-2 within the NFC South, greatly hampering their chances of winning the division.
Carolina needs this game to keep pace with Atlanta; both teams are 2-0 so far. Although coaches hate to admit that some games matter more than other, they and their players know that is true. The Panthers' first two victories occurred against AFC teams. A game versus a divisional rival counts for more, both in the race for the NFC South crown and in the standings for playoff seeding and wildcard spots.
New Orleans at Carolina
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Carolina -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Saints' pass rush against Cam Newton
Compared to the other quarterbacks that the Saints have faced so far, Cam Newton poses more danger than the first two. He is much more a threat to scramble, either to complete a pass under pressure or just take off down field for a big gain, than Carson Palmer. He has started 64 games in the NFL compared to Jameis Winston's single start prior to last week's game. Somehow, the Saints front seven must find a way to pressure Newton on a consistent basis yet not let him escape the rush then tuck the ball and run for positive yards.
2. Panthers' passing attack vs. Saints' defensive backs
Carolina has only managed an average 185 yards receiving. In neither game did they exceed 200 yards. Newton has thrown an interception in each game. The Saints are allowing an average of 257 yards through the air. They have not yet picked off a pass.
Can the Panthers exploit the most glaring weakness of the Saints' defense? Will the Saints be able to suppress Carolina's passing enough to help keep the home team from piling up 20 or more points?
3. Drew Brees' injury status
The Saints' organization and its fans may have a glimpse of life after Drew Brees. It does not look pretty. Considering the offense only managed to score 19 points in each of the first two games with Brees at the helm, how much will the offense struggle without him?
If Brees cannot play at Carolina, the Saints have two choices. The first is Luke McCown, nominally a veteran and the obvious choice. However, he has only started nine games in his entire NFL career — the two most recent of those occurred in 2011. The other option is Garrett Grayson, a rookie. If Drew Brees does not start on Sunday, the Saints' offense came be summed up in one word: DOOMED!
The Saints' defense must pick up some slack, especially if Brees is physically limited or outright benched. Their forcing and recovering two fumbles inside Buccaneers territory on consecutive possessions in the second half serves as a model of what they need to do this week. Actually, the Saints would greatly benefit from a turnover returned for a touchdown. The offense seems quite unlikely to be able to break the 19-point barrier in Charlotte.
The Panthers are only managing 22 points per game on average so far. One of the Panthers' five touchdowns was scored by its defense. That modest average would suffice; Carolina will raise it against a weak defense.
Prediction: Carolina 27, New Orleans 13
— Written by John La Fleur, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network. A graduate of Michigan State and LSU, La Fleur also has been a Saints fan since he was old enough to understand football. Follow him on Twitter @FBConnoisseur.