Even if the New Orleans Saints didn't still have a path to the NFC's No. 1 seed for the playoffs – even if they'd been eliminated from playoff contention a couple of weeks ago – they still would be fully engaged for the regular-season finale on Sunday against Carolina at Bank of America Stadium.
They still would be all in on winning.
But, given that the former is true, and the Saints (11-4) do still have the chance to earn the top seed and accompanying bye week, New Orleans definitely has a little more incentive to sweep the season series against the Panthers (5-10) and to go undefeated in NFC South Division competition this year.
Here are a few items on the checklist for a successful trip to Charlotte, N.C.:
- STAY GROUNDED: New Orleans has unleashed one of the NFL's most formidable rushing attacks in the last five weeks, averaging 171.2 yards per game on 5.3 yards per carry, with 14 touchdowns. The Saints' offensive line has mixed and matched through injuries, and is one of the league's dominant units. But now the offense will be missing four of its regular backs, star Alvin Kamara, backup Latavius Murray, Dwayne Washington and fullback Michael Burton, all sidelined for Covid-related reasons. That means Ty Montgomery, former practice squader Tony Jones Jr. and perhaps Taysom Hill will need to step in and keep the chains moving.
- KEEP TRENDING UPWARD: Drew Brees' two interceptions against Minnesota on Christmas Day can't magically disappear, but in spite of them, he had 19 completions (in 26 attempts) for 311 yards. That's highly productive, and included five completions of at least 19 yards. The turnovers from that position have to cease, but there's no better caretaker of the ball than Brees and with this being his third game since returning to the lineup after missing four due to rib injuries, he should be in even better sync with his receivers. Emmanuel Sanders and Marquez Callaway look fully capable of handling the load, and Taysom Hill adds some punch to the group. And here's a not-to-be overlooked stat: Tight ends Jared Cook and Adam Trautman combined for five catches and 127 yards against Minnesota.
- STOP THE DRIP: New Orleans needs to get back to being a shutdown run defense. Even if the Kansas City game (41 carries for 179 yards for the Chiefs) is pulled aside because the Saints made some run-game concessions in order to slow down Kansas City's passing game, Philadelphia (246 yards on 36 carries) and Minnesota (90 on 17) combined to average 6.3 yards per carry. That's far more generous than the Saints have been, and want to be as they enter the playoffs. It should help that defensive tackle Malcom Brown returns to add another quality player at that position. Carolina is without its top two running backs in Christian McCaffrey and Mike Davis, but nothing is to be taken for granted; New Orleans held the Panthers to 37 yards on 14 carries in the first meeting, and would love for similar production in this one.
- SNEAKY GOOD: In case you haven't noticed, the Saints are up to fifth in the league against the pass (215.1 yards per game allowed). The secondary and pass rush have become what they were forecast to be in training camp, a group that pressures the passer (42 sacks) and that intercepts passes (13 total) or breaks them up (five defensive backs have at least seven PBUs, including three with at least 10). The Saints have had to rely on their depth and will again in this one; C.J. Gardner-Johnson (Covid) and Marcus Williams (ankle) are out. But P.J. Williams already has played (and started) at free safety, and Patrick Robinson returns from injury, so while the depth isn't ideal, New Orleans is comfortable with its secondary. Defensive end Trey Hendrickson is back from a one-game injury absences and brings his 12.5 sacks with him. Combine that with Cam Jordan (7.5) and Marcus Davenport, plus the push up the middle, and New Orleans again should be able to pressure Carolina quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, their former teammate.
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