4:40 PM EST, FOX – Line: Saints -7, Over/Under: 48
Familiar foes face off in the Big Easy, as the Carolina Panthers travel to New Orleans to battle the NFC South Champion Saints, looking to avoid a third defeat in as many meetings in this, the final matchup of Wild Card Weekend form Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Panthers (11-5, 2nd in NFC South) are hoping that the third time will indeed be the charm, as they look to finally get over the hump that is their division rivals, who handled them with relative ease in each of their previous two encounters. In their first meeting, a 34-14 debacle at Bank of America Field back on September 24th, Carolina simply couldn’t find a way to halt the visiting side’s progress, quickly falling behind 24-6 early in the Third Quarter. At that point of the campaign, Ron Rivera’s charges had struggled mightily on the offensive side of the ball, and this particular meeting was no different; the hosts amassed just 288 Yards of Total Offense, while Cam Newton (59.1%, 3,302 YDS, 5.81 NY/A, 22 TD, 16 INT) experienced arguably his worst performance as a passer in 2017, managing a scant 167 Yards, with Zero Touchdowns and Three Interceptions, while suffering Four Sacks, along with countless other hits. Fast-forward a little over two months, and the results were only marginally better, as Newton and Co. were bested in a 31-21 affair at Mercedes-Benz Superdome; once again, the Panthers struggled to keep up with their foe, mustering 279 Total Yards of Offense, while struggling on Third Down (3-for-10), while getting blanked on Fourth (0-for-2). Newton, for his efforts, was a bit better, completing 17-of-27 Passes for 183 Yards, and a pair of Touchdowns, while rushing for another Fifty-One Yards on Six Carries, but simply could not keep pace with the hosts, who churned out 400 Total Yards, controlling Time of Possession (33:21) via 148 Rushing Yards on Twenty-Eight Carries. Now, the next entry in this series will see Rivera and his Coaching Staff once again attempting to slow down their opponent’s prolific Offense, while his Quarterback must solve their suddenly stingy Defense. It would’ve been more ideal if this meeting were to be contested in Charlotte, where the conditions would grant Carolina a better chance of bottling up New Orleans’ attack, but that opportunity slipped through their grasp in the Regular Season Finale at Atlanta, where the Falcons killed that notion with a 22-10 victory. With the Saints falling in Tampa (31-24), the Panthers could have leapfrogged them in the standings, and would instead be hosting today’s contest, if only they could have managed to defeat a desperate Falcons team that they had already bested back in early November. However, as has been the case throughout the campaign, the inconsistencies of the Offense arose once more, with the visitors appearing lifeless on this side of the ball, totaling just 248 Yards, including a miserable Eighty-Seven on the ground, while Newton failed to impress on 14-of-34 Passing for 180 Yards, a Touchdown and Three Interceptions. Again, this has been the case throughout the term for a unit that has been hard-pressed to find playmakers apart from Newton; on the season, Carolina has averaged 22.7 Points (12th Overall) on 338.8 Total Yards (19th Overall), including 207.4 Yards through the air (28th Overall) on 5.7 Net Yards per Attempt (19th Overall), with another 131.4 Yards on the ground (4th Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (10th Overall), while converting on 41.9% of their Third Downs (7th Overall) and scoring a Touchdown on 53.8% of their trips into the Red Zone (17th Overall). While those figures represent a largely average Offense, they take a nosedive in their five losses thus far, with Rivera’s troops scoring a dismal 14.0 Points on 282.6 Total Yards per Loss, with Newton playing the main culprit; in those five losses, the former MVP has been nearly unrecognizable, completing just 56.1% of his Attempts for an average of 196.0 Yards on a miserable 5.06 Net Yards per Attempt, all the while tossing Four Touchdowns in comparison to Eleven Interceptions. The biggest issue for the Seventh-Year Veteran Quarterback, and the Offense as a whole, is the fact that he’s reverted back to carrying too much of the load; when the Panthers went to the Super Bowl two years ago, it was because Newton and the Coaching Staff found a way to seamlessly balance his skills as both a Passer and a Rusher, though 2017 Newton has resembled his pre-2015 incarnations, in which he is also serving as the team’s leading Rusher, achieving career-highs in both Rushing Attempts (139) and Rushing Yards (754). However, he’s accounted for a stunning 78.3% of his team’s Offense, which is by far and away the highest percentage of any player in the league, which has also led him to plenty of punishment, playing with a nagging shoulder injury that has yet to be afforded the opportunity to heal for weeks now. And speaking of injuries, Rivera and his Staff have their hands full, for there are a number of prominent players limping into Wild Card Weekend, including the likes of Starting Offensive Linemen Ryan Kalil (Shoulder) and Trai Turner (Concussion), leading Receiver Devin Funchess (Shoulder), and Starting Tailback Jonathan Stewart (Back), along with Edge Rusher Mario Addison (Hip), Starting Safety Kurt Coleman (Ankle), and Cornerback Ladarius Gunter (Illness), all of which are listed as Questionable.
Meanwhile, after a 3-year absence featuring a trifecta of 7-9 campaigns, the Saints (11-5, 1st in NFC South) have returned to the Playoffs, earning their first Division Title since 2011, though hardly anyone outside of the state of Louisiana saw this coming. For all intents and purposes, this appeared to be a team at the end of their line, with the successful Sean Payton/Drew Brees partnership firmly entrenched in it’s twilight, and a Defense that has been habitually among one of the league’s worst, consistently managing to negate the exploits of their prolific teammates on the opposite side of the ball. At 38-Years of Age and in the final year of an insanely lucrative contract, Brees looked to be on his way out, while Payton, who had been linked with a number of other coaching jobs over the past two years appeared likewise, signaling the end of an era in the Big Easy. And with all that said, as this league ruled by parity would have it, New Orleans has once again recovered, on the strength of a punishing Rushing Attack and a revitalized Defense, with many proclaiming them as a dark horse candidate to emerge from the NFC Playoffs. Let’s start with the Running Game, where it almost seems unfair to give a Quarterback as prolific as Brees (72.0%, 4,334 YDS, 7.53 NY/A, 23 TD, 8 INT) such a crutch to lean on; the Saints have floored the opposition in this regard, averaging 129.4 Yards (5th Overall) on 4.7 Yards per Carry (2nd Overall), and leading the NFL with Twenty-Three Rushing Touchdowns (1st Overall), despite only needing 27.8 Carries to do so (13th Overall). After a career-year in 2016, Tailback Mark Ingram (288 Touches, 1,540 Total YDS, 12 TD) was selected to his second Pro Bowl, while establishing career-highs in Carries (230), Rushing Yards (1,124), and Rushing Touchdowns (12), along with Receptions (58) and Receiving Yards (416). However, the Seventh-Year Veteran has only been one half of the attack, with Alvin Kamara (201 Touches, 1,554 Total YDS, 13 TD) proving to be the versatile weapon that has ignited this Backfield Revolution in New Orleans. The Third-Round Pick has been a deadly asset to Payton’s arsenal, becoming just the fourth player in NFL History to record over 700 Rushing Yards and 700 Receiving Yards apiece, all the while leading the league in Yards per Carry, netting an explosive 6.1 Yards per Rushing Attempt, and will also be joining his fellow teammate in Honolulu. Furthermore, the tandem of Ingram and Kamara became the first pairing in NFL History to record 1,500 Yards from Scrimmage apiece, with only one (Earnest Byner and Kevin Mack back in 1985) ever surpassing 1,400 Yards. The dynamic duo absolutely tormented the Panthers in their two meetings this season, averaging a whopping 188.0 Yards on 6.83 Yards per Touch, while accounting for Four Touchdowns. And speaking of Rookies, Payton and the Front Office really aced this Draft Class, with the likes of Offensive Tackle Ryan Ramczyk, Cornerback Marshon Lattimore (52 TKL, 5 INT, 18 PD, 1 TD, 1 FR), and Safety Marcus Williams (71 TKL, 4 INT, 7 PD) each playing huge roles in their success. The latter pair, particularly Lattimore, have helped vastly improve what has oftentimes been an abysmal Defense over the past three years; after ranking no better than Twenty-Eighth in Scoring Defense and Twenty-Seventh in Total Defense over that period, the Saints have done a complete about-face in 2017, allowing 20.4 Points (10th Overall) on 336.5 Total Yards (17th Overall), including 224.8 Yards against the Pass (15th Overall) on 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (16th Overall), and another 111.7 Yards versus the Run (16th Overall) on 4.4 Yards per Carry (28th Overall), while accumulating Forty-Two Sacks (8th Overall), and Twenty-Five Turnovers (9th Overall). Even as injuries have threatened to rain on their parade, the youth movement has continued to carry them with Sophomores Vonn Bell (78 TKL, 4.5 SK, 2 FF, 2 PD) and Sheldon Rankins (26 TKL, 2.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 1 PD) consistently creating havoc, while the elderstatesman of the group Cameron Jordan (62 TKL, 13.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 INT, 12 PD, 1 TD) has enjoyed arguably his finest season in being selected to his third Pro Bowl. In their two meetings with Carolina this season, New Orleans has done a tremendous job of neutralizing their attack, particularly Newton, relegating their NFC South foes to averages of 17.0 Points on 246.0 Total Yards, with the former MVP struggling complete a dismal 58.1% of his Attempts for 161.5 Yards on 5.21 Net Yards per Attempt, with Two Touchdowns in comparison to Three interceptions, while sacking six times for a loss of Forty-Four Yards. One would certainly favor their chances today for a variety of reasons, none more so than the fact that it will be contested at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where during the Payton/Brees Era they’ve gone a perfect 4-0, averaging 37.0 Points on 434.0 Total Yards, with a Plus-Five Turnover Differential. And if that wasn’t enough for you, in the case of Playoff Meetings between Division Rivals meeting for a third time in which one team has taken the previous two encounters, that team has gone one to win on thirteen of twenty occasions since the NFL-AFL Merger back in 1970, or in other words, 65.0% of the time.