The Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints are no strangers to each other as NFC South Division rivals, but Sunday’s NFC Wild Card Game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be the first postseason contest between these two teams. The rare third meeting in the same season was set up in part by a pair of losses in Week 17.
Carolina entered its season finale against Atlanta with a shot at the division title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC bracket. The Panthers needed to beat the Falcons on the road and for New Orleans to lose to Tampa Bay to win the NFC South, as well as for the Vikings to fall to at home to the Bears to climb all the way up to the second seed. Even though the Saints cooperated, the Vikings did not, but in the end it didn’t matter as Carolina’s 22-10 loss in Atlanta put an immediate end to the Panthers’ best-case scenario.
Carolina’s loss sealed up the NFC South crown for New Orleans, but it doesn’t take the sting away from losing to a Buccaneers team that entered the game 4-11. Still, the Saints went 2-0 against the Panthers in the regular season, outscoring them 65-34.
NFC Wild Card: Carolina at New Orleans
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 7 at 4:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Saints -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Which Cam Newton shows up?
Not surprisingly, as Newton goes so go the Panthers. And this has especially been the case in recent seasons against New Orleans. Since 2015, Carolina is 3-3 against its NFC South rivals. In the three wins, Newton has averaged 279.3 passing yards per game with a total of eight touchdown passes and one interception. In the three losses, his yardage dips to 224 per game with just as many TDs as picks (four each). In the two losses alone this season, he has thrown three interceptions compared to just two scores and hasn’t posted more than 183 yards through the air in either game.
However, everyone knows Newton is more than just a passer. While hasn’t racked up a ton of rushing yards (163 total) in these six games, he has scored three times on the ground. What’s more interesting is that in the wins, Newton has averaged 7.3 carries per game, while in the losses it’s about four. Carolina head coach Ron Rivera has made it no secret that he wants to rely more on someone else other than his quarterback to power the ground attack, but over the past three years, Newton has been at his best against the Saints when he remains an active part of the running game. And the same can be said for the Panthers as a team. Will that be the case on Sunday? Either way, Carolina needs a good game from Newton to have a chance at pulling off the upset.
2. Can the Panthers force the Saints to rely on their passing game?
Drew Brees’ (right) statistics have dropped this season. After leading the league in pass attempts twice in the past three seasons and averaging 653 during that span, he had just 536 in the regular season. That’s his fewest since 2009 (514) when he played in 15 games. A decrease in attempts also means his other numbers are down across the board compared to past seasons, most notably his yards (4,334) and touchdowns (23), but that doesn’t mean Brees, or, more importantly, New Orleans’ offense has declined.
Instead, it signals a shift in the Saints’ offensive balance. Thanks to the combination of Pro Bowl running backs Mark Ingram (above, right) and Alvin Kamara, New Orleans is still one of the NFL’s most dangerous and explosive offenses because of the emergence of their running game. The Saints finished the regular season fifth in both rushing (129.4 ypg) and passing offense (261.8 ypg), which puts them second overall in total yards per game (391.2 ypg). The balance has taken pressure off of Brees, who for the first time in years has not needed to carry this offense on his back, and it has helped lead New Orleans back to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
This balance also makes defenses’ job that much harder when playing the Saints. Carolina knows full well that it must find a way to limit the damage done by Ingram and Kamara, who are the main reason why New Orleans averaged 148.5 rushing yards in the two previous wins against the Panthers. Besides running the ball, Kamara has made his mark as a receiver out of the backfield. He’s second on the team in receiving (826 yards) and has scored five times through the air. Ingram also has contributed in this respect with a career-high 58 receptions and 416 receiving yards thus far.
Because of their productivity and versatility, Carolina must account for Ingram and Kamara on every play, even if they don’t get the handoff. And should the Panthers be successful in slowing down the Saints’ running game, then all they have to worry about is a future Hall of Fame quarterback who is the NFL’s career leader in accuracy (66.9 percent) and is third all-time in both passing yards and touchdowns.
3. Will the third time be the charm for the Panthers?
Carolina is no stranger to the postseason. The Panthers are just two seasons separated from playing in Super Bowl 50. They also arguably know the Saints better than any other team in the league. But Carolina also knows that New Orleans has already beaten them twice this season and done so by an average of 15.5 points. So what’s different this time? For one, hopefully tight end Greg Olsen (right) is healthy something he was not for the previous two meetings, missing both because of injury. And while others like Newton, wide receiver Devin Funchess, center Ryan Kalil and defensive tackle Vernon Butler are among those dealing with minor injuries, it appears that the Panthers will be as close to full strength for this game as they have been in some time. Considering what happened in Weeks 3 and 13 and the fact Carolina flamed out in 2016 (6-10, last in NFC South) after its Super Bowl run, motivation certainly shouldn’t be an issue either. The question is can the Panthers solve the Saints on the road when the stakes are even higher?
Conventional wisdom claims that it is difficult, if not impossible, for one team to defeat another three times within the same season. However, the history of NFL playoff games since 1970 does not bear out that notion. When a team had defeated an opponent twice during the regular season then faced that same opponent for a third time in the playoffs, the team going for the trifecta has won 13 times in 20 occurrences.
Even though New Orleans beat Carolina by double digits in both regular season meetings, expect this game to follow a somewhat different script. The Panthers will remain close until late in the fourth quarter as the Saints march on in front of the home crowd.
Prediction: Saints 30, Panthers 24
— 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.