Panthers vs. Saints: Why It's Important for Carolina To Finish Strong

Tyler Horner@BR_TylerHornerCorrespondent IIDecember 29, 2011

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 24: Cam Newton #1 of the Carolina Panthers celebrates with fans after the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on December 24, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina  (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

On Sunday, Carolina will take on the NFC South leading Saints in what's shaping up to be a very important game in analyzing the offseason priorities for the Panthers

Carolina has played very well lately, winning four out of its last five games, including a 48-16 win over the Buccaneers last week. Beating the Saints will not only cap off the season in style, it will create excitement around this young team heading into the offseason and destroy New Orleans' chances of getting the two seed in the NFC. 

However, a victory will not come easy. With home-field advantage and a Wild Card Round bye week at stake, the Saints will be playing their starters. That means Drew Brees and the most powerful offense in the NFL right now will fully intend to maintain their undefeated record at the Superdome and finish with a 13-3 regular-season record. 

Brees leads an offense full of weapons, which will create problems for Carolina's beat up defense, which lacks any depth following 16 weeks of injury problems. The Saints' quarterback broke Dan Marino's single-season passing record against the Falcons last week and has 41 touchdowns on the season to nine different receivers. 

This will likely be a high scoring affair, with both teams leading the league in explosive plays while also allowing 47 20-plus yard passes on the season; albeit the Saints' deep passes have come on over 100 more passing attempts. 

Carolina will struggle to defend tight end Jimmy Graham and will likely have to trust their corners in man coverage in order to put the pressure on Drew Brees. This could ultimately bite the Panthers defense in the back end, but it has the potential to lead to some turnovers.

This defense isn't without talent and defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson can deliver some vicious hits when they break through to the quarterback. 

Collectively, the Saints defense has been nearly as poor as the Panthers'. Against the run, they have been without an answer at times and the defense has been unable to force turnovers as was its identity in past seasons. Greg Williams still earns a lot of respect as a great defensive coordinator, but this season, he's failed to create even one turnover per game. 

Look for Carolina to establish a run game early and then challenge New Orleans to contain Steve Smith, the team's best deep threat. If Carolina is able to come away with a win, it could very well signal a changing of the guard for the second-best team in this division.