The score when Carolina knocked off New Orleans last December: 41–38. The score when New Orleans returned the favor earlier this year: 41–38.
Both of those games took place in the Superdome. There were fewer fireworks last time the Panthers hosted this rivalry (27–22, Carolina), but the odds are stacked heavily against a defensive slugfest Thursday night.
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That said, both teams have taken incremental steps forward defensively. The Saints have held their four opponents since that Week 6 showdown with Carolina under 30 points—doesn’t sound like much but four of their first five opponents scored 34 or more. And the Panthers have allowed an average of just 16.7 points over their past three games, while racking up 15 sacks.
“They’re a very, very good defense, from their front, to their linebacker corps—which I think is probably the best in the league—to the secondary,” Saints QB Drew Brees said Tuesday, via his team’s website. “They’ve got guys that fly around and make plays, they thrive on giving you a lot of different looks at times and having a good pressure package, trying to create turnovers. That’s something they’ve been very good at in the past.”
Not so much five weeks ago. The Panthers sacked Brees just once on 50 dropbacks, as he finished with 465 yards passing, four TDs and an interception. WR Brandin Cooks was the star that afternoon, hauling in seven catches for 173 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown. TE Coby Fleener also scored twice (once on an end around handoff), spotlighting the Panthers’ coverage issues against tight ends earlier in the year.
Carolina can be hit or miss in that area still–it held Kansas City’s dynamic Travis Kelce to just three catches last week but Los Angeles’ Lance Kendricks had seven for 90 the Sunday prior. Fleener hasn’t done much since that earlier Carolina game, while the Saints’ receiver combo of Cooks, Michael Thomas and Willie Snead has erupted.
Brees has been sacked just 13 times this season, so the Saints’ quick-trigger passing game could be the perfect counter to Carolina’s thriving pass rush. But can the Saints’ get home against Cam Newton?
It did, repeatedly, vs. Denver’s Trevor Siemian last week: six sacks plus several more hard hits. Newton, though, brings much more elusiveness to the table. He rushed for 54 yards and a touchdown against the Chiefs; the Saints limited him to two attempts for one yard earlier in the season.
Jonathan Stewart did chip in 85 yards and two touchdowns in New Orleans. Carolina has rushed for 100-plus yards in six of its eight games–the run-pass balance is a necessity, because Newton can get in trouble when defenses pin their ears back on obvious passing downs.
For all the talk of New Orleans’ passing game, it’s not as if the Panthers are pushovers there. Newton’s average of 249.3 yards per game is his highest since his rookie year of 2011. Between Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess and leading pass-catcher Greg Olsen (50 receptions for 712 yards), Newton has ample options through the air.
And the Saints bring the league’s worst pass defense into Thursday night. That group has been better of late, limiting three of its past four foes to fewer than 300 yards. But it’s far from a shut-down group.
These teams tend to take it to the wire when they meet. This version should be no different, with the Panthers holding on at home.
Until further notice, the Saints’ star safety remains available. Vaccaro has a pending four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED ban, but his punishment is contingent on a second test and an appeal. Who knows how long that process could last.
New Orleans won’t mind if he gets to stick around. He was his usual, active self last week against Denver, with nine tackles, a sack and an interception. Vaccaro will be one of the defenders responsible for helping to slow Olsen, on top of his usual responsibilities, so his presence is critical.
Bold prediction: Newton throws a TD pass of 53 yards or longer
Why 53? Because Olsen, with a 78-yarder, is the only Panthers’ player with a touchdown of longer than 52 yards on the year. Kelvin Benjamin (50) and Ted Ginn (52) each has had his own big play, but nothing up near the range of Olsen’s Week 2 score.