Saints-Panthers Preview

The New Orleans Saints have clinched home-field advantage

throughout the NFC playoffs, but coach Sean Payton wants his team

to treat its regular-season finale like there’s more on the

line.

Before heading into the postseason, Payton’s team will try to

avoid a third straight loss when it visits the resurgent Carolina

Panthers on Sunday.

When it jumped to a 17-0 lead against visiting Tampa Bay last

Sunday, New Orleans (13-2) seemed to have gotten over the season’s

first defeat, 24-17 to Dallas on Dec. 19.

The Saints, however, failed to score after halftime and allowed

the lowly Buccaneers to tie the game with a pair of fourth-quarter

touchdowns. New Orleans’ Garrett Hartley missed a 37-yard field

goal attempt with five seconds left in regulation and the Bucs went

on to hand the Saints their second consecutive home loss, 20-17 in

overtime.

“It’s hard to explain,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “We started

off fast, then after that there was a big lull.”

Despite the loss, the Saints earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed for the

first time in team history with Minnesota’s overtime loss at

Chicago on Monday night.

Because of his team’s performances the past two weeks, Payton

said his players should view this week’s matchup as “the last game

to get in or out of the playoffs.”

“It’s important for us to play well this week,” he said. “We

have to find the corrections and … view it as an opportunity for

us to get things corrected before it becomes a more important

game.”

First on that list of corrections is solving an inexplicable

scoring lull. New Orleans averaged 35.8 points during its

team-record 13 straight victories but has had a season-low 17

points in each of the last two weeks.

The Saints have been held under 400 total yards in three

consecutive games. That happened once in the previous eight

weeks.

“What’s most important is for all of us to closely look at some

things that we have to get back to doing that we’ve done earlier in

the year or in any of our wins,” Payton said.

Brees has two touchdown passes and one interception over the

last two games following a four-game stretch in which he had 13 TDs

and one INT.

The Saints defense is allowing 359.8 yards per game to rank 24th

in the league and has given up 439 each of the past two weeks,

including a combined 321 rushing yards.

That doesn’t bode well against the NFL’s third-best rushing team

(154.7 ypg). The Panthers (7-8) got a franchise-record performance

from Jonathan Stewart last week.

With DeAngelo Williams nursing an injured left ankle, Stewart

ran for 206 yards and a touchdown as Carolina produced another easy

victory, 41-9 over the host New York Giants. Stewart and Williams,

who may return Sunday, are the fifth pair of teammates in NFL

history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.

Matt Moore threw for three touchdown passes for the second

straight game. He’s had seven TDs and one interception since taking

over for an injured Jake Delhomme earlier this month, leading the

team to three wins in four starts.

“He’s got more comfortable managing the game,” coach John Fox

said. “I think there are certain things he’s a little more

comfortable doing that we’ve had to tweak a little bit. But I think

he’s gotten better each week and I think he’ll continue that.”

Last week’s performance combined with a 26-7 home win over

Minnesota on Dec. 20 might have saved Fox’s job. Trying to avoid a

fourth 7-9 finish in eight seasons running the Panthers, Fox

wouldn’t say what his future holds despite reports that owner Jerry

Richardson would allow him to return next season.

A season-high third straight victory and the seventh in nine

tries against the Saints might help Fox’s job security, but

Carolina needs a better second-half performance than the one it had

in a 30-20 loss at New Orleans on Nov. 8.

Williams gave Carolina a 14-0 lead with a pair of TD runs, but

the Saints rallied for 24 points over the final 29:04, including

Anthony Hargrove’s 1-yard fumble return with two minutes

remaining.

While Williams rushed for 149 yards in that loss, Stewart was

limited to 24 on 13 carries, and Brees passed for 330 yards.

The Saints haven’t dropped three in a row since a four-game

losing streak to begin the 2007 season. They are looking to finish

8-0 on the road for the first time in franchise history.