The New Orleans Saints (12-3) and the Carolina Panthers (6-9) meet Sunday afternoon for the final regular season game for both squads at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints will wrap up the regular season and prepare for the playoffs following one of their most exciting and significant wins in franchise history, a 45-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday Night Football.
In addition to clinching the NFC South for the second time in three seasons and extending their win streak to seven games, currently tied for the longest in the NFL with the New England Patriots, QB Drew Brees set the NFL's single-game passing record in the win, when his fourth quarter nine-yard touchdown pass to RB Darren Sproles gave him 5,087 for the season, surpassing a record held for 27 years by Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino (1984-5,084).
The youthful Panthers, quarterbacked by Cam Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft have made significant strides after finishing 2-14 last season. With a 48-16 pasting of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Christmas Eve, one of the NFL's most youthful squads has grown up in a hurry, winning four of their last five contests.
While the Saints guaranteed a home playoff game with the win over the Falcons, they are still angling for the NFC's number two seeds. A win over the Panthers, combined with a loss by the San Francisco 49ers to the St. Louis Rams would give the Black and Gold a weekend off. A win would also improve their record to 13-3, tying the franchise record for regular season wins set in the Super Bowl XLIV Championship season, as well as giving them an 8-0 record at home for the first time in the team's 45-year history.
"Carolina is one of the most improved teams in the NFL," said Head Coach Sean Payton. "I think a lot of that improvement, just live our improvement five years ago starts at the quarterback position. Offensively, they have shown outstanding balance. The challenge is there for us to continue playing with consistency each week on all three sides of the ball. It will be exciting to try to finish the season undefeated in front of our home crowd. They have certainly played a significant role in this record with their support and the noise they create on our home field.
With the division title in the books and the NFL single-season passing record set, New Orleans will continue looking to play with the consistency on offense, defense and special teams that has them playing some of their best football at the most important time of the year. In addition to a standout offensive performance on Monday, where the Saints put up 463 total net yards, the New Orleans defense also made several big plays on Monday night. The Falcons were stopped three times on fourth down, while a fourth quarter play where LB Scott Shanle stripped Atlanta WR Julio Jones of the ball on a reception, which S Malcolm Jenkins returned 30 yards for a touchdown left no doubt to the outcome. On special teams, Sproles broke open a 92-yard kickoff return as part of a performance that featured 236 all-purpose yards.
Sunday's matchup will feature high-powered offenses on both sides of the ball. While the Saints offense is ranked first in the NFL (457.1 yards per game), Carolina, with their firepower both in the passing game and run game are ranked fourth (395.7 yards per game. On Saturday vs. Tampa, the Panthers ran up 433 yards of offense, while an opportunistic defensive unit forced four turnovers.
"Since I've been here, the Panthers have been one of our toughest opponents in the division," said Brees, who completed 23-of-39 passes for 307 yards with four touchdowns on Monday night. "Even though they have had a coaching change, that philosophy of a hard-nosed defense has stayed the same. Since their season ends on Sunday, they will certainly want to go into 2012 with momentum. We will be prepared for their best game."
While Brees and the Saints offense will make a premium on taking care of the ball, defensively the Saints, who's ranking against the run in recent weeks has ascended to tenth in the league, will have their hands full against a Panthers rushing unit that is ranked third in the NFL. While the one-two punch of DeAngelo Williams (783 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (682 yards) will test the Saints, they will also have to keep aware of Newton (674 yards, 14 touchdowns), who is a threat with his feet as well as his arm. Newton is also aided in the passing game by wideout Steve Smith who is enjoying a career year with 73 receptions for 1,308 yards (17.9 avg.) along with the one-two tight end punch of Greg Olsen and former Saint Jeremy Shockey.14:08:19
The New Orleans Saints players, coaches and staff would like to wish all of their fans a safe and happy New Year! We look forward to seeing you in the playoffs!