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New Orleans Saints vs. Carolina Panthers Preview and Prediction

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New Orleans enters Thursday night's game following a crushing defeat at home. Victory seemed nearly secured following Drew Brees’ 32-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks to tie the score with less than a minute and a half remaining. But instead of successfully kicking the extra point to go ahead, Justin Simmons jumped over the center to block it. Will Parks scooped it up for the rare two-point conversion to put the Broncos back in front. The Saints were unable to recover the ensuing onside kick, thus allowing Denver to run out the clock.

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Carolina endured its own painful loss at home last week too, as the end of the game against Kansas City typified the Panthers’ disappointing season. With the game tied at 17 following 14 unanswered fourth quarter points by the Chiefs, Carolina had the ball at its own 20-yard line with just 29 seconds left. Cam Newton completed pass to Kelvin Benjamin, who was subsequently stripped by Marcus Peters, setting Kansas City up in field goal position. Two plays and two timeouts later, Cairo Santos drilled the 37-yard field goal to give the Chiefs another come-from-behind victory. For the Panthers, it represented just another way to lose as the defending NFC champions fell to 3-6 less than a year after starting the season 15-0.

New Orleans beat Carolina 41-38 at home back in Week 6. The Panthers lead the all-time series 23-20 although the games played in Charlotte have been spilt (10-10). Carolina has had the upper hand recently, winning six of the past nine matchups overall.

New Orleans at Carolina

Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 17 at 8:25 p.m. ET                                                                  

Broadcast Channels: NBC, NFL Network, Twitter                                                                 

Spread: Panthers -3

Three Things to Watch

1. Can the Panthers’ running attack find holes in the Saints’ improved defense?
Carolina running back Jonathan Stewart has missed some practice time this week, but he’s not listed as questionable on the injury report so he should be good to go. Stewart has already missed three games because of a hamstring injury, but he’s still the team’s leading rusher with 334 yards and four touchdowns.

Stewart’s presence is even more important as the Panthers are trying to limit Cam Newton’s carries to protect him from some of the punishment he absorbs. Newton is second on the team in both yards (261) and attempts (57) and he’s tied for Stewart for the lead in rushing touchdowns.

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In the first meeting with New Orleans in Week 6, Newton was coming back from missing the previous game due to a concussion. He had just two carries against the Saints, but one of those went for a touchdown. Since that game, Newton has run the ball 26 times for 113 yards and a score (total of three games).

As a team, Carolina finished with just 103 rushing yards on 27 attempts (3.8 ypc) in the Week 6 loss in New Orleans. Not only was Newton returning from injury in that game, it was Stewart’s first game back after missing the previous three. So what should we expect in the rematch? A comparison between common opponents could provide some clues. The Panthers ran for 157 yards (4.9 ypc) versus the Broncos, 176 yards (4.8) versus the 49ers, 49 yards (3.2) versus the Falcons and 99 yards (4.0) versus the Chiefs. Contrast that to the Saints, who held the Broncos to 103 rushing yards (2.8 ypc), but were gashed by both the 49ers 248 yards (5.9) and Falcons 217 yards (7.0), while doing a decent job against the Chiefs (112, 4.0). Based on those numbers, don’t be surprised if Carolina finds a little more running room, especially considering its main ball carriers are healthier than they were back in Week 6.

However, some other numbers indicate that New Orleans could still keep the Panthers in check on the ground. In the past six games, the Saints have held their opponents to 112 rushing yards or fewer. In the past two weeks, the Panthers have managed just 59 yards (2.3 ypc) against the Rams and then 99 (4.0 ypc) last week versus the Chiefs. So Carolina’s running game isn’t exactly clicking on all cylinders entering tonight’s contest either.

2. Protect the ball!
Football coaches at all levels repeatedly hammer one cliché as much if not more than any other – do not turn the ball over! It is simplistic to state that the Saints did not get the benefit of the doubt from officials on Will Parks’ game-winning conversion of the blocked PAT, even though it appeared he may have stepped out of bounds. However, in the end it was New Orleans’ four turnovers that were the difference. Rookie wide receiver Michael Thomas fumbled twice in the second half in Saints’ territory, which the Broncos turned into 10 points. Obviously, Carolina’s second turnover against the Chiefs turned a game apparently headed for overtime into a gut-wrenching loss.

In four of New Orleans’ five losses, the Saints were on the wrong end of the turnover battle. The pattern is remarkably similar for Carolina, who has finished with a negative turnover margin in five of its six defeats. Cliché or not, ball security will be of paramount importance tonight.

3. Can Drew Brees and his receivers repeat their passing cavalcade against the Panthers?
In the first meeting in New Orleans, the Saints erupted for 460 passing yards. That is their highest total this season as the offense has reached 400 yards through the air only one other time. Brandin Cooks, Michael Thomas and Coby Fleener did most of the damage, finishing with 173, 78 and 74 yards respectively. Each also hauled in a touchdown pass.

Unfortunately for Carolina, there’s no real reason to expect significantly different results this time around, at least on paper. The Panthers are still relying on a group of inexperienced defensive backs, including a pair of rookie cornerbacks in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, that has taken its lumps this season. The Panthers will need to get consistent pressure on Brees (had just two sacks in first game) or he could end up picking them apart yet again.

Final Analysis

Both New Orleans’ and Carolina’s chances to win the NFC South are fading. Given the strength of the NFC East, it seems very unlikely that anyone from this division could grab one of the wild card spots. Therefore, the automatic berth as division champion appears to be the only realistic hope for either the Saints or Panthers to advance to the playoffs.

New Orleans needs this game to start a winning streak in an effort to catch first-place Atlanta. If anything positive can be stated about the Saints’ five losses, then they take some consolation in that only two occurred within the NFC and only one against an NFC South foe. Despite what coaches insist, not all games carry the same significance. This particular matchup has even more importance since divisional record is one of the first tiebreakers.

Carolina finds itself in an even more precarious position. The Panthers have lost all three divisional games so far. They also are just 3-4 against NFC teams as a whole. Both of those tiebreakers do not favor Carolina right now should it end up tied with another team by season’s end. If the Panthers are going to make any sort of late playoff push, it has to start tonight. Meanwhile the Saints need to win to stay close to the Falcons or the division race may become a moot point sooner rather than later. As for tonight, the short turnaround gives the home team a slight edge.

Prediction: Panthers 30, Saints 28

— 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.