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: New Orleans Saints
Click here for a preview on the Carolina Panthers.
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. For the Saints to come out on top, a replication of Week 14’s feats is vital.
Player Spotlight: Drew Brees
Some of this offensive fallout derives from Brees’ struggles on the road. In the friendly confines of the Crescent City, the Super Bowl MVP has been magnificent, hitting 73.2 percent of his targets for 2,454 yards (350.6 per game) for 24 total scores and three turnovers, leading the Saints to a 7-0 mark. Away from Louisiana? Not so much: a 63.4 completion percentage, 12 end-zone excursions and nine turnovers, equating to a 3-4 record. With Brees’ performance particularly disconcerting in Seattle during a Week 13 journey (22-for-38, 147 yards, one touchdown, fumble lost), it’s imperative for New Orleans to grab a W this weekend to keep the venerable arm indoors in January as long as possible.
Is the Saints defense showing cracks in its wall?
Rob Ryan’s rejuvenation of the New Orleans resistance was the spur for this club’s success in the first three months. (Although the jury is still out on Ryan’s better contribution: his defensive insight or Bourbon Street prowess.) This fortification has been missing in December, with the Seahawks knocking the Saints around and the immortal Kellen Clemens having his way last weekend.
For the Saints to return to their previous ascendency, filling the holes up front will be a prerogative. The Rams busted up New Orleans for 144 yards on the soil, troubling as the Panthers are primarily a rushing attack (129.4 yards per game, eighth in the league). Such opposition will alleviate the responsibility off Brees and force Newton into the air, not particularly the Carolina QB’s strong suit.
Fantasy Impact: Saints running backs
Mentioned above, New Orleans dropped 31 on the Panthers in their first rendezvous. However, in their other 13 games, Carolina has held challengers to a meager 13.6 points per tilt, putting an aberrational reflection on the Saints’ victory. Coupled with a front seven that is relinquishing only 84.9 rushing yards per game (second-best in the NFL), the forecast looks ominous for the Big Easy backfield. Even in PPR formats where Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles hold a distinguished standing, keep these entities on the pine.
The Saints win if…
Brees is able to navigate through Carolina’s defense, Jimmy Graham is able to shake off his December rust (averaging only 41.7 yards per game this month versus an 86.0 mark in the first 11 contests), Ryan agrees to entertain the entire defense to a night on the town if victory is achieved.
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