Last season was a lost cause for the Saints and Panthers. New Orleans, encumbered by the season-long suspension of coach Sean Payton, stumbled out of the gate with four straight losses. Carolina found itself in a similar boat, notching a lone win in the first two months as Cam Newton failed to progress in his sophomore campaign. Though each ended 2012 on positive notes, both were left in the cold come playoff time.
In a sense, these fortunes have changed for the better in 2013, as the Saints and Panthers enter Week 16 with 10 wins each under their belts. Alas, a postseason invite is not guaranteed, with the San Francisco 49ers also flaunting 10 victories and the Arizona Cardinals right behind with nine. The winner from this weekend’s New Orleans – Carolina tilt clinches the NFC South division title and a first-round bye, while the loser is left fighting for the final Wild Card spot. This gravitas makes the Charlotte showdown our FOX NFL Game of the Week.
Watch to Watch: Carolina Panthers
Click here for a preview on the New Orleans Panthers.
Can the Panthers rebound from Week 14’s embarrassment?
Carolina has come out on top in nine of its past 10 contests, including wins over San Francisco, New England and Miami. However, you could understand one’s apprehension in picking the Panthers this weekend. Ron Rivera’s club seemed totally outmatched against the Saints in the Big Easy a mere two weeks ago. Carolina’s defense, a vaunted crew that arrived at the Superdome allowing just over 12 points per contest during the squad’s eight-game winning streak, was decimated by Drew Brees and the air attack. Worse, Newton and the Panthers offense were stuck in neutral, making their lone trip to pay dirt with only five minutes to go in 31-13 blowout. Every NFL squad has one week where things don’t go their way, but given the peripherals and implications associated with said matchup, it’s fair to question if Carolina owns the maturity and temerity to succeed at this juncture of the season.
Matchup Watch: Carolina Defense vs. New Orleans offense
Reigning Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly (122 tackles) headlines a defense surrendering 14.9 points per game, second-best in the league. Kuechly, along with Charles Johnson (nine sacks), Greg Hardy (eight sacks) and Thomas Davis (103 tackles, four sacks), highlight a front seven that is holding opponents to 84.9 yards per appearance, second only to Arizona for tops in the league. Yet while this group gets the majority of the attention, the secondary has held up its end of the bargain, ranking fifth in the NFL at 211.4 passing yards per game. This unit will get a shot at redemption on Sunday against the only offense that has surpassed the 30-point barrier on the Panthers in 2013.
Somewhat surprisingly, scoring has not been as easy for the Saints as one would assume. Although New Orleans ranks fifth in the league with 397 total yards per contest, the offense has been unable to translate these figures to the scoreboard. In fact, here’s a stat that will blow your socks off: the Vikings are averaging more points per game (25.9) than the Saints (25.6). Concededly, that number still ranks 10th in the league, yet given its preeminent reputation, the offense’s bark is not living up to its bite.
Fantasy Impact: Greg Olsen
Steve Smith is known as the primary target for Carolina. Alas, Father Time has caught up to the venerable wideout, robbing Smith of his explosiveness (evidenced in a lack of deep balls) and strength (i.e. struggles in separation). Enter Olsen, the former first-round pick of the Bears. Concededly, he never lived to this exalted stature in the Windy City, averaging a pedestrian 32 yards per game in four seasons. Fortunately for the 7th Floor Crew member, he’s carved out a nice stint in Charlotte, and is one pace for career-bests in receptions and yards in 2013. The Saints have been tough against opposing tight ends this fall, but expect enough balls in Olsen’s direction to negate this challenge. (By the way, remember when the 7th Floor Crew was considered scandalous? I think Sports Reporters spent an entire show on the subject. Now it would barely register as a blip on the radar. Well, unless Shia LaBeouf stole their lyrics and pawned them off as his own creation.)
Spotlight: Cam Newton and the offensive line
In 10 wins this season, Newton has hit 63.4 percent of his passes for 23 total touchdowns versus seven interceptions. Conversely, the figures take a precipitous drop in Carolina’s four losses: a 59.7 completion rate, four scores and five turnovers. Perhaps the biggest firecracker in this sentiment is sacks. Despite the 10-to-4 ratio, Newton has gone down 19 times in wins, 19 in losses.
Keeping Newton clean takes on heightened meaning this week. The Carolina QB is dealing with a toe injury, albeit one that won’t repress Newton from dressing on Sunday. While the Saints have hit a rough patch in December, the New Orleans defense remains stout. As strong as the Panthers defense has been, the team’s destiny ultimately lies with the third-year signal caller, adding extra importance to Newton’s performance.
The Panthers win if…
Newton and the run game keep Brees on the sidelines, the Carolina D contains Jimmy Graham over the middle, the ensuing karma from Ron Rivera’s charity offering.
Sorry Carolina fans, but can’t bet on Brees losing three of his last four…
Prediction: Saints 23, Panthers 20
Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall