Although Sunday's meeting between the New Orleans Saints (7-8) and Carolina Panthers (6-9) will not have any consequence in the postseason race, it will be a meaningful contest for two clubs that have been playing their best football of the season as of late.
The two clubs will face off in the 2012 season finale at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday at 12:00 pm (CST).
The journey of improvement for both clubs came after each encountered difficult starts. New Orleans got off to an 0-4 start, but have gone 7-4 since their rocky beginning.
The Saints are coming off of a dramatic 34-31 overtime win at the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, their second straight victory.
Carolina started their season 1-6, mired in a five-game losing streak at one point. The resurgent Panthers are now winners of three straight and four of their last five contests after they defeated the Oakland Raiders 17-6 on Sunday.
"I am proud of our team and how they have battled throughout the season," said Assistant Head Coach/ Linebackers Joe Vitt. "The way that this team worked to improve each week after the start and some of the challenges we faced along the way, speaks volumes about the commitment of our coaching staff and the character of the men in our locker room. The Panthers are also playing their best football of the year and we have to be both mentally and physically prepared for the challenges they pose."
In their first meeting at Bank of America Stadium on Sept. 16, the Panthers came away with a 35-28 win as QB Cam Newton passed for 253 yards and rushed for 71.
After losing three straight games, the Saints have rolled up 447 and 562 total net yards respectively in their last two wins against Tampa Bay and the Cowboys.
QB Drew Brees has been flawless in these two performances, completing 63-of-92 passes for 753 yards with seven touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 118.6 passer rating.
On Sunday at Dallas, he threw for 446 yards for the second time this season and engineered a seven-play, 72yard drive when the Saints got the ball in overtime that ended with a 20-yard field goal by K Garrett Hartley.
On that game-winning drive, TE Jimmy Graham, who finished with seven receptions for 88 yards, adeptly jumped on a fumble by WR Marques Colston that bounced to the Dallas two-yard line, preserving possession for his team and setting up the game-winning kick.
The New Orleans defense also made several key plays on Sunday when it counted against Dallas. The Saints allowed the Cowboys to convert only two-of-ten (20%) third downs and surrendered only 40 rushing yards.
Late in the third quarter, LB Curtis Lofton forced Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray to fumble and recovered it at the Dallas five-yard line, setting up an easy touchdown. Lofton has enjoyed a standout campaign in his first season with the Saints, posting a club-best 150 stops.
Brees now leads the NFL with 4,781 passing yards and 39 touchdown passes. With 219 passing yards on Sunday, he would reach the 5,000 yard mark for the third time and for the second consecutive year.
With one more touchdown pass after tossing 46 in 2012, Brees would join Dan Marino as only the second NFL signal-caller to throw for at least 40 scores in two different seasons.