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John DeShazier's keys to a Saints victory over the Panthers

Converting at higher rate on third down will be important

The New Orleans Saints are in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, playing their first home playoff game since 2011. Expect the Mercedes-Benz Superdome crowd Sunday to sound championship-caliber. Expect the Saints to have to be successful in a few of these areas in order to help the fans maintain their level of intensity, and in order to advance to the divisional playoff round.

  1. Third-down conversion rate isn't a sexy category, but it's one that will be critical for the Saints. New Orleans has struggled to convert on third down this season (37.6 percent) unlike it has at any prior time with Coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees. The inability to convert consistently this season has led to games in which the defense has been on the field for 72 plays (New England), 76 plays (Detroit), 73 plays (the Rams) and 81 plays (Tampa Bay). The Saints lost three of the four (they beat Detroit partly due to three defensive touchdowns) and only led Detroit in time of possession in those games. That can't happen against the Panthers, who would love nothing more than to keep the Saints defense on the field and to hammer away at it. New Orleans' offense has to be better in manageable situations (8 of 17 on third-and-2 this season, 5 of 15 on third-and-3) so that the Saints can do the imposing.
  1. No team ran as well against Carolina this season as did the Saints – 149 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries in Bank of America Stadium, and 148 yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries in the Superdome. New Orleans had a little slippage in the run game the last quarter of the season; it ran for 92 yards or less in three of the final four games. So the Saints need to get Pro Bowlers Mark Ingram II (1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns on 230 carries) and Alvin Kamara (728 yards and eight touchdowns on 120 carries) back on track. Their production leads to a healthy balance on offense, and will go a long way toward keeping the Panthers honest on defense. Having left tackle Terron Armstead back in the lineup should help.
  1. Speaking of Kamara, he also now has shown the ability to give the Saints a positive jolt as a kick returner. His 106-yard touchdown return against Tampa Bay in the regular-season finale – the longest play in franchise history – was the kind of play that makes teammates look forward to giving him an opportunity to pop a return. Kamara has shown enough wizardry to be named second-team All-Pro, at the Flex position. That just means he's a versatile threat, and the Saints would like to see that versatility again pay off in the kicking game.
  1. There's no secret to what the Saints want to do against Carolina defensively. If Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is scrambling and extending plays, or gaining six or seven yards per rushing attempt, that likely isn't a good thing. New Orleans much would rather see Newton in the pocket, passing. That will give first-team All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan (a career-high 13 sacks) and his comrades a chance to get him on the ground, something the Saints did effectively in the two regular-season games. Newton completed 34 of 53 passes for 350 yards – he didn't pass for 200 yard in either game – with two touchdowns and three interceptions, and was sacked six times. But it's worth noting that Panthers tight end Greg Olsen will be available Sunday, after missing both regular-season games with injuries. He only had 17 catches for 192 yards in the regular season, but Olsen, who had three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, is one of the best at what he does.
  1. Ten Saints remain from the last Saints team to reach the playoffs, in 2013. For the rookies, it's a new experience and, hopefully, it's one during which they'll be able to maintain the poise that they've shown all season.
  1. When the Saints throw it, look for Pro Bowler Michael Thomas (a franchise-record 104 catches for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns). He had 12 catches for 157 yards and two scores against Carolina, and the Panthers' cornerbacks like to challenge. Thomas likes a good challenge, too, so this could be another big day for Thomas and Brees.
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