This is no time for exhaling. There's still work to do, and a lot of it, for the NFC South champion New Orleans Saints.
Currently, there is a No. 1 seed to maintain, and the surest way for the Saints (11-2) to do that is to keep winning games, beginning Monday night against Carolina (6-7) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Don't let Carolina's record deceive; despite a five-game losing streak, the Panthers are a division opponent, they still have a chance to earn a playoff spot and they would take some satisfaction in throwing a wrench into the Saints' plans. There are a few ways that New Orleans can prevent that, among them:
- Hopefully, the 25-point, second-half outburst against Tampa Bay was what the Saints offense needed to get back in sync. Prior to that, New Orleans had scored 13 points in six quarters and was unable to find a rhythm against Dallas and Tampa Bay. True, Taysom Hill's blocked punt and a handful of defensive stops helped set the tone for the surge. But the offense had to do the work once it gained possession of the ball, and touchdown drives of 30, 51 and 53 yards might have been the confidence-building possessions that New Orleans needed. Drew Brees has thrown interceptions in three straight games (remarkably, he still has just four this season while completing 75.7 percent of his passes) but he'll need to be cleaner against Carolina. The Panthers dared the Saints to win via the pass in their Wild Card playoff game last season, and Brees obliged in vintage fashion. I doubt Carolina will employ a similar tactic but if it does, receiver Michael Thomas (102 catches, 1,218 yards, eight touchdowns) is going to need a little help from his friends at the position.
- Stopping the run is important every week for the Saints. It will be even more so against the Panthers, who are second in the league in rushing yards (137.4 per game) and first in yards per attempt (5.4). Linebacker Demario Davis (a team-leading 95 tackles, three sacks, nine tackles for loss, eight quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, two passes defensed) possibly has been even better than expected. And if you don't like what Alex Anzalone (45 tackles, three forced fumbles, two passes defensed) and A.J. Klein (58 tackles, seven tackles for loss, three passes defensed, a fumble recovery) have been doing, it probably means you haven't been watching. They lead a league-leading run defense (77.6 yards per game allowed, 3.6 yards per carry) that'll be aware of Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (926 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on 179 carries) and quarterback Cam Newton (96 carries for 473 yards and four touchdowns). If those two get loose, it likely won't be a good sign.
- Newton's throwing arm is injured, which could be why his numbers are suffering. He's still completing 68.8 percent of his passes, for 3,264 yards and 24 touchdowns, but he has 12 interceptions and during Carolina's five-game losing streak, he has nine touchdown passes and eight interceptions, and has been sacked 13 times. The Saints' pass defense no longer is an aspect that's to be scoffed at as a weak link. In New Orleans' last five games, it has allowed 206.2 passing yards per game (three times, opponents were held to 174 yards or less), six touchdowns and produced seven interceptions, with 24 sacks. Defensive end Cam Jordan (12 sacks, two in each of the last three games, respectively, with 17 quarterback hits and 17 tackles for loss) again is playing at an All-Pro level, and tackle Sheldon Rankins (eight sacks) has been a fantastic compliment. On the back end, Marshon Lattimore (two interceptions, 11 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries) and Eli Apple (an interception and six passes defensed) have been a good, sometimes standout, tandem. New Orleans will benefit from the absence of Carolina tight end Greg Olsen; he has given the Saints (and others) fits over the years.
- The Saints' running game hasn't exactly fallen off the table, but 49 carries for 165 yards in the last two games isn't what we'd grown accustomed to seeing. It won't be easy against Carolina, either. The Panthers allow 97.8 rushing yards per game, seventh fewest. Mark Ingram (110 carries, 519 yards, five touchdowns) will become the franchise all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with his next one and Alvin Kamara (23 carries for 87 yards in the last two games) may be due for a big statistical game.