The New Orleans Saints (8-3) tasted defeat last Sunday for the first time in almost 10 weeks and still, they remain atop the NFC South Division standings. The reason for that is an eight-game winning streak that began with a victory over Carolina (8-3) at Bank of America Stadium. If the Saints are going to sweep the season series with the Panthers, win Sunday's game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and take a one-game lead in the standings, there are several critical factors that likely will have to fall into place.
- New Orleans uncharacteristically is converting 39 percent of the time on third down and the last two games even have been below that mark (4-of-12 against Washington, 3-of-13 against the Rams). Against the Rams, it helped contribute to a lopsided number of plays run (73-52 in favor of Los Angeles) and time of possession (35:26 to 24:34, Rams). That can't happen against the Panthers, who lead the league in possession time (33:32 per game). The Saints need to be able to get off the field defensively (they've done that; opponents are converting 39.6 percent of the time on third down) and offensively, they have to convert to keep alive drives. Quarterback Drew Brees and Co. converted half of their 12 third-down attempts against the Panthers on the road, and they'll need the rate to be somewhere in that neighborhood Sunday.
- It's not a mirage. The Saints can run the ball, to the tune of 142.1 rushing yards per game. Mark Ingram II has a team-high 837 yards and eight touchdowns on 166 carries, and Alvin Kamara, the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for November, has 546 yards and five touchdowns on 77 carries as much more than a change-of-pace back. They'll be challenged by Carolina, which allows just 83.2 rushing yards per game. The Saints ran well the first time against the Panthers (149 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries), but Sunday's effort will be just as notable for the attempts as it will be for the yards. In other words, 30-plus attempts for 100 yards may not be a great per-carry average, but it keeps the defense honest. The Saints need to maintain the balance that they had during their winning streak, but which evaporated against the Rams. They can't be one-dimensional against a Panthers defense that already has 32 sacks.
- Now that Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is healthier, he's running more. In the last eight games, he has run for 418 yards and four touchdowns on 69 carries; he ran 14 times for 46 yards and a touchdown in the first three games, including just 16 yards on three carries against the Saints. New Orleans would much rather see him in the pocket as a passer, as would most Panthers opponents. If Newton is running and helping out the ground game, which averages 129.2 yards, then the Panthers have a defense on its heels. If the run game is under control, then Saints defensive end Cam Jordan (a team-leading 10 sacks, and the NFC Defensive Player of the Month) will give the Panthers' offensive tackles fits. The Saints sacked Newton four times and intercepted him three times in the first game, so you know which Newton they'd prefer to see.
- If the Panthers do decide to test the Saints through the air, starting cornerback Ken Crawley is back after missing last week's game, but the Saints still will be without NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate cornerback Marshon Lattimore. When Rams quarterback Jared Goff passed for 354 yards and two touchdowns, it was the most passing yards allowed by the Saints since New England's Tom Brady totaled 447 yards in Week 2. Having back Crawley, one of the most improved Saints this season, definitely will help because Carolina receiver Devin Funchess (50 catches, 643 yards, five touchdowns) has emerged as a favorite target for Newton. Also, expect veteran cornerback Sterling Moore to play a bigger role this week. New Orleans also will be without rookie safety Marcus Williams in this one (Williams made his first career interception, an acrobatic one-hander) in the first meeting, but Vonn Bell has been playing at a high level and Kenny Vaccaro hopefully knocked off his rust in Sunday's game against the Rams.
- This is another "special teams alert" week. Carolina's Kaelin Clay returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown for the Panthers against the Jets last Sunday. The Saints didn't cover Rams returner Pharoh Cooper (three punt returns for a 19.7-yard average, four kickoff returns for a 27.5-yard average) nearly as well as they'd hoped. A clean cover game always is significant.