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Saints vs. Panthers: Five things to watch

Fast start, balanced attack are two the keys

1. SEIZE THE DAY: It doesn't get any simpler than this for the New Orleans Saints: Beat the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium, and win the NFC South Division title and No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Lose, and the No. 2 seed and division crown still would be in play, but would be out of their control. So when coaches and players talk about wanting to be playing their best football at this time of the season, and wanting to cease the talk about how the Saints don't win on the road, Sunday would be a good day for New Orleans to play its best road game. Or, if not the best, something that approximates the effort they produced in Chicago on Oct. 6, which likely was their most complete road victory this season.

2. STARTING BLOCKS: Getting a fast start likely will be critical. The Saints are 3-4 on the road this season, 1-4 in games the opponent has scored first. The only road win they've produced when the opposition has scored first was in Atlanta. In all the others the deficit has become too big to overcome, the momentum too hard to shift. Given that the Panthers also understand the stakes of the game, they simply can't be allowed to post a two-touchdown lead. Most teams are great front-runners at home, and Carolina has won nine of its last 10 games. The only loss? A 31-13 blasting in New Orleans. So Carolina will be looking to extract a little revenge, as well as win the game that would help it sew up the NFC South.

3. HELP THE ROOK: Rookie left tackle Terron Armstead will be starting his first NFL game Sunday, against a team where the starting defensive ends, Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson, have combined for 17 sacks. So the guess is that the Saints won't stick him on an island and leave him there all game. Strategically, he'll receive some aid and that will alleviate some of the pressure on him to protect the blind side of quarterback Drew Brees. When Armstead is one-on-one, he's going to have to hold up and perform. He said he's ready for the challenge. Carolina will test him on that.

4. BALANCING BREES: The bad pattern that has developed in road losses is this: Because the Saints have fallen behind significantly in several of them, they basically have had to abandon the run. Being one-dimensional on the road rarely is a good thing, and the Saints have been terribly imbalanced on a few occasions – 60 attempts to pass by Brees and 20 rushes in St. Louis, 39 and 17 at Seattle and 53 and 13 in New Jersey against the Jets. All three were losses. When the Saints have been at their best on the road, the pass-run ratio has been much more balanced, because they haven't been in catchup mode. So we'll have a good indication of how things are going at Bank of America Stadium if the Saints have a pass-run ratio along the lines of 60-40.

5. NEW KICKER: In a perfect world, newly signed kicker Shayne Graham only will have to deal with multiple point-after attempts. In the real world, given that this is a division game, he very likely could be called upon to make a pressurized field goal. The man he replaced, Garrett Hartley, unfortunately appeared to have lost his confidence as the season progressed. Hartley missed six of his last 14 field-goal attempts, including two in last week's loss to St. Louis (one was blocked because of low trajectory). Graham can earn a ton of respect if he comes through on Sunday with whatever task he has to perform. It might come down to his foot.


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