The New Orleans Saints are all in for the win Sunday against the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
That's the approach Coach Sean Payton and players said they're taking, and there isn't much reason not to believe them, since the Saints (12-3) are hoping to maneuver into position to claim the No. 1 or 2 seed in the NFC. The best way to do that is for New Orleans, currently the 3 seed, to take care of business against Carolina (5-10).
Possibly, here are a few helpful hints to keep the Saints on that path:
- The Saints' offense is cookin'. In the last six games, New Orleans is averaging 35.3 points per game and in the last eight games, Drew Brees is completing 75.7 percent of his passes, for 289.8 yards per game and 22 touchdowns, with two interceptions. Brees may get a boost this week; starting guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford are poised to return to the lineup. That said, Carolina still leads the league in sacks (52) and the Panthers will apply pressure. Brees was sacked twice by the Panthers the first game this season, but he completed 30 of 39 passes and threw three touchdowns. If he's clean, so is the Saints' offense.
- The Michael Thomas-Jared Cook, 1-2 punch really has begun to pay dividends for the Saints. Thomas, the NFL single-season record holder with 145 receptions entering Sunday, has 72 catches for 813 yards and five touchdowns in the last seven games. In that same span, Cook has 26 catches for 493 yards and six scores. Each is a mismatch in his own right, so keep an eye on both Sunday.
- The Panthers haven't made it a secret that they intend to feed running back Christian McCaffrey the ball in their finale. Why not? He's Carolina's most potent offensive weapon and has had an absurdly productive season: 278 carries for 1,361 yards (second most in the league) and 14 touchdowns, and 109 catches for 933 yards and four touchdowns. He's about as close to being a one-man gang as there is in the NFL. The Saints had a few slip-ups finding him in the previous game, when McCaffrey totaled 133 yards and two touchdowns on 31 touches. New Orleans has to make another Panther take over.
- The Panther that the Saints want to test, obviously, would be rookie quarterback Will Grier. He'll be making his second NFL start, and his first one wasn't glorious: 27 of 44 for 224 yards and no touchdowns, with three interceptions and he was sacked five times in a 38-6 loss to Indianapolis. The Saints' defense has shown its own ability to get to the quarterback (49 sacks, tied for third-most in the league) and New Orleans really needs to pressure Grier because it'll be operating with a banged-up secondary. Safeties Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams and cornerback Eli Apple – all starters – won't play in this one. C.J. Gardner-Johnson, P.J. Williams, Patrick Robinson and Janoris Jenkins all chipped in against Tennessee to help offset the losses; those four, and more, will need to play as well or better against the Panthers.
- This isn't one to sleepwalk into. New Orleans spotted Tennessee a two-touchdown lead before springing to life against the Titans in a 38-28 victory last Sunday. It's nice to be able to produce that kind of comeback, but it's not a habit the Saints should aspire to form. Plus, a quick lead just might discourage an opponent that already has made its vacation plans.