1:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Saints -3, Over/Under: 44.5
After a successful opening weekend which unveiled their new Starting Quarterbacks to the world, NFC South rivals look to double down on their impressive starts as the New Orleans Saints travel to Bank of America Stadium to battle the Carolina Panthers. Fifteen years, nine postseason appearances, seven division titles, one Lombardi Trophy, and a wealth of individual passing records. That’s what (former Franchise Quarterback) Drew Brees leaves behind as his legacy in New Orleans, but after the 42-year old called it a career last January, the Saints (1-0, T-1st in NFC South) finally turned the page under Center and were thus tasked with finding the future Hall of Famer’s replacement. Fortunately, (Head Coach) Sean Payton didn’t have far to look for his new starting signal-caller, with a lengthy competition between Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston (70.0%, 148 YDS, 7.40 NY/A, 5 TD, 0 INT, 91.8 QBR) proving to be the dominant storyline throughout Training Camp and the Preseason. Eventually, Winston would earn the gig as he looks to make good on what amounts to be one hell of a second chance. Of course, the 27-year old has had quite the career already; after winning a National Title and the Heisman Trophy back in 2014, Winston was selected No. One Overall in the 2015 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with his tenure proving to be anything but stable, amassing a disappointing 28-42 record over the course of five seasons, a period in which he became synonymous with committing turnovers, 111 to be exact. Superbly talented yet wildly inconsistent, Winston’s magnum opus was a ridiculous 2019 in which he led the National Football League in both passing attempts (636) and yards (5,109), along with interceptions (30), becoming only the fourth Quarterback in history to reach that total. As a result, the Bucs cut him loose in the ensuing Offseason, with the veteran eventually landing in the Big Easy, where he looked to resurrect his career under one of the most acclaimed offensive coaching staffs in the NFL. Winston played sparingly in 2020, appearing in just four games in which he attempted eleven passes in mop-up duty. However, his time behind Brees ultimately laid the ground work for where he is now, which is coming off a historically impressive performance. Simply put, last Sunday’s showing against the Green Bay Packers was nothing short of surprising; relocated to Jacksonville following the effects of Hurricane Ida, the Saints hammered the Packers in a 38-3 blowout, with Winston tossing a career-high FIVE touchdowns despite attempting just twenty passes for only 148 yards, which was good for the fewest amount of yards associated with that many touchdowns in league history. New Orleans would control the affair on the ground, rushing for 171 yards on thirty-nine carries, leading to a commanding advantage in time of possession (34:36), with (All-Pro Tailback) Alvin Kamara (20 CAR, 83 YDS, 4.2 Y/A, 0 TD) racking up eighty-three yards on twenty carries and Tony Jones (11 CAR, 50 YDS, 4.5 Y/A, 0 TD) adding fifty yards in eleven attempts. Winston also chipped in with thirty-seven yards on six carries, but all anyone could talk about was his performance through the air; with (All-Pro Receiver) Michael Thomas out of action due to injury, Winston spread the wealth as eight different players caught a pass, with Deonte Harris (2 REC, 72 YDS, 36.0 Y/A, 1 TD) making plays downfield with a pair of receptions for seventy-two yards and a score, while Juwan Johnson (3 REC, 21 YDS, 7.0 Y/A, 2 TD) found the end zone twice on three receptions for twenty-one yards. This contest served as an example as to how this Offense has evolved from Brees to his successor; younger and more athletic, Winston’s arm strength and mobility brings tools to the attack that they quite frankly never had under his successor, which is something their opponents must account for moving forward. With that said, while this performance was indeed eye-opening, it will be up to Winston to prove that the peaks and valleys that he experienced earlier in his career are indeed behind him, and this matchup with Carolina should make for an appropriate testing ground for his growth and maturity; in ten career starts against the Panthers, he has gone 5-5 with ten touchdowns and TWENTY turnovers, fourteen of which were interceptions, his most thrown against single opponent. On another note, the Saints will be missing a number of individuals for today’s affair, including a whopping eight from their coaching staff, which has been rocked by multiple COVID-19 positives this week. As far as the roster is concerned, (Defensive End) Marcus Davenport (3 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK) and (Linebacker) Kwon Alexander (2 TKL) were both placed on Injured Reserve with shoulder and elbow injuries, while (Pro-Bowl Cornerback) Marshon Lattimore (3 TKL, 1 PD), who signed a lucrative five-year, $95.6 million contract extension shortly after Sunday’s win, is likely to miss the next few games with an ailing hand.
Meanwhile, the Panthers (1-0, T-1st in NFC South) also began a new era of football last Sunday, and just as today’s opponent did so with a victory, they began their campaign with a win on the strength of a new face under Center. Indeed, the aforementioned Winston isn’t the only former high draft pick looking to resurrect his career in new surroundings, for Sam Darnold (68.6%, 279 YDS, 7.50 NY/A, 1 TD, 48.9 QBR) is out to do exactly that. At this point, we should all be familiar with the story of Darnold, who was selected Third Overall in the loaded 2018 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, only to spend the next three seasons in the driver’s seat of one of the ugliest train wrecks in the league. Though he certainly didn’t live up to the hype, New York absolutely FAILED in building a competent supporting cast around him, with the young signal-caller logging a disappointing 13-25 record in the Big Apple, accounting for forty-five touchdowns and thirty-nine interceptions in thirty-eight games. Following an utterly miserable 2020 in which Gang Green cratered to a 2-14 finish, the Jets offloaded Darnold in a trade with the Panthers, who were all-too happy to acquire the services of the 24-year old, with the hope that his arm strength will bring a different dimension to an Offense that clearly lacked it last season. Indeed, Carolina was very competitive in their first campaign under (Head Coach) Matt Rhule, finishing 5-11 despite nine games by decided by one possession, with (incumbent Quarterback) Teddy Bridgewater serving as nothing more than a bonafide game manager. The train of thought here is that Darnold, who at twenty-four years of age is remarkably younger than a number of the Quarterbacks that were selected early in this Spring’s NFL Draft, can unlock the potential of an Offense that features no shortage of playmakers, and continue to grow with them as well. And with that said, it was nothing short of poetic that his first start with his new franchise would come against his old one, as the Panthers held off the Jets in a 19-14 affair that wasn’t a close as that final score would indicate. The hosts raced out to a 16-0 halftime lead as Darnold would find (former Jets teammate) Robby Anderson (1 REC, 57 YDS, 57.0 Y/R, 1 TD) for a 57-yard touchdown late in the second quarter, eventually ending the afternoon with an impressive 24-of-35 passing for 279 yards and that touchdown, while rushing for another shortly before the half. After missing all but three games last year with a variety of injuries, (All-Pro Tailback) Christian McCaffrey (30 TCH, 187 YDS, 6.2 Y/T, 0 TD) returned with a vengeance, rushing for ninety-eight yards on twenty-one carries and hauling in another eighty-nine yards on nine receptions, while (fourth-year Receiver) D.J. Moore (6 REC, 80 YDS, 13.3 Y/R, 0 TD) registered eighty yards on six catches. Though the attack certainly bogged down in the second half, there was still plenty to be excited about as the home side looked dangerous at times throughout the affair, and should only grow over the course of the season. Furthermore, the Defense looked promising too, as Rhule’s charges relegated the Jets to just 252 yards and sixteen first downs, including a scant forty-five rushing yards on seventeen carries, all the while sacking Darnold’s successor, Zach Wilson, six times for a loss of fifty-one yards. Six different players recorded a sack for Carolina, including (Outside Linebacker) Haasan Reddick (4 TKL, 2 TFL, 1 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF), another of Rhule’s former charges from his collegiate days at Temple, who was signed in the Offseason to bolster the pass-rush following a career-high 12.5 sacks with the Arizona Cardinals in 2020. After terrorizing a Rookie Quarterback, this unit will receive a real litmus test in the form of the Saints, who needless to say have OWNED the Panthers over the last five years; since 2016, Carolina is just 2-8 against New Orleans, including four consecutive defeats, yielding thirty or more points on six occasions.