The last time the New Orleans Saints played Carolina, the Saints were a shell of themselves.
New Orleans had clinched the No. 1 seed last year entering the regular-season finale, most of the starters rested and though the Saints weren't pleased in any way with the 33-14 loss, the objective of exiting the game and entering the playoffs without key injuries was accomplished.
Sunday's game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome will have a different tone entirely for New Orleans.
True, the Saints (8-2) own a three-game cushion over second-place Carolina (5-5) in the NFC South Division. But nothing is settled, in the division or in playoff seeding, and New Orleans has to keep winning in order to solidify its status on both fronts. How might the Saints go about accomplishing that Sunday?
Glad you asked.
- From Houston's J.J. Watt, to the Rams' Aaron Donald, to Seattle's Jadeveon Clowney, to Dallas' DeMarcus Lawrence, to Chicago's Kahlil Mack, the Saints have faced some of the league's best pass rushers. In Carolina, New Orleans will face the league's best pass rush, period. The Panthers have an NFL-leading 39 sacks entering Sunday's game, with no less than eight players owning at least three sacks. It's one of the reasons Carolina allows just 233 passing yards per game, and has 12 interceptions, third-most in the league. New Orleans only has allowed 19 sacks, and six of them came in one game. The line has done the job keeping Drew Brees clean and Carolina will present a formidable challenge for the Saints to continue to do so. This may be another eight- to 10-catch game for running back Alvin Kamara; those passes help slow the rush and help advance the ball (and eat up the clock). The chess match between Brees and Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechley always is worth watching.
- Second-year quarterback Kyle Allen has been a good story for Carolina. He's had some up-and-down moments, but the Panthers won five of his first six starts before dropping the last two. Still, containing Carolina's offense means containing running back Christian McCaffrey, who leads the NFL in rushing yards (1,059), yards from scrimmage (1,576) and touchdowns (14). He averages 25.8 touches per game, so he's going to have the ball in his hands a lot, and the Saints have to make sure they're disciplined when he does because McCaffrey is a home run threat. New Orleans allows 85.3 rushing yards per game; linebacker Demario Davis, as usual, will be key.
- Making the Panthers one-dimensional on offense means what it always means for the Saints: They want to force the opposing quarterback to have to come up with the goods. And the Saints lately have had few peers when it comes to stepping up to the challenge in pass defense. In the last seven games, New Orleans has allowed 205.1 yards per game, with eight touchdowns and seven interceptions, at a completion percentage of 58.5. For the season, New Orleans is allowing 233 yards per game and a 60.6 percent completion rate, with opponents totaling 14 touchdowns and eight interceptions. In other words, the secondary has been sticky and the pass rush (17 sacks over that span) has been just as effective. Allen is coming off a loss in which he was sacked five times and threw four interceptions, and he has been sacked 28 times this season. The Saints should be able to pressure him Sunday, with their regulars on the field, including Cam Jordan (9.5 sacks).
- Let's not overlook the emotion of the moment. The Saints' last home game was a dud – they couldn't wait to get back on the field, against Tampa Bay – and the thought here is that New Orleans will be emotionally charged for this one. The Saints never really gave fans a reason to plug into the Atlanta game, but this could be a ride-the-electricity game. I think the Saints will supply it, early.