Panthers vs. Saints: 5 Things to Watch for on Sunday

Zayne Grantham@ZPGSportsContributor IIIJanuary 1, 2012

Panthers vs. Saints: 5 Things to Watch for on Sunday

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    The New Orleans Saints are wrapping up their third straight 10-plus win season and are heading to the playoffs for the third year in a row.

    They will be hosting the division rival Carolina Panthers on Sunday.

    The Saints are looking to secure a win in hopes that it will reward them with the NFC's second seed, but the Panthers look to play spoiler. I believe the Panthers remember the game earlier this year when the Saints came into Carolina and walked away victorious.

    The Panthers want nothing more than to come into New Orleans and beat Drew Brees and the Saints.

    The Saints are undoubtedly not overlooking this young Carolina team, but they have clinched the NFC South and a playoff spot. They will be looking for the win, but more importantly they will be looking to improve for the postseason.

    There are no questions for the offense, as they have proved that they are the best in the business. However, the Saints defense still has a couple of question marks, and this game against the Panthers should show us what to expect from the defense against a great offense.

    As always, there are many important things in a football game, but let's look at five things we should keep an eye on throughout Sunday's game.

Health of the Starters

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    The most important thing in this game is the health of the Saints starters.

    Sean Payton knows better than anyone just how important health is. In the last game of last year, the Saints played their starters and ended up losing Chris Ivory, Jimmy Graham and Malcolm Jenkins in the first half. All three of those players missed the next week's game against in Seattle in the wild-card round.

    New Orleans still has the NFC second seed to fight for, and I believe they will fight to the end of this game. However, Payton needs to be aware of the health of his key players.

    It would be horrible to lose a guy like Drew Brees, Graham, Jenkins or any other starter going into the playoffs. Payton is one of the best coaches in the league, and he is aware of this.

    I expect the Saints to play for the win, but if the game begins to get out of hand, I would think that Payton will begin to pull his starters out of the game.

Saints Secondary vs. Panthers Receivers

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    This is going to be a true test for the Saints' defensive backs.

    The Carolina Panthers are just as talented as any other offense in the league. Their receiving corps is dangerous, and the Panthers have running backs and tight ends who can catch the ball well.

    Steve Smith is among the best receivers in the NFL and you can bet that he is hungry after Roman Harper's cheap shot on him in the last game. We can also be sure that Cam Newton will be delivering perfect passes on the money all day.

    Jabari Greer, Malcolm Jenkins, and the rest of the Saints secondary, will need to play lights-on against the Panthers and throughout the playoffs if they want to be in their second Super Bowl in three years.

    They definitely have the depth, talent and potential to do this, and now they just have to prove it.

Saints' Defensive Line vs. Cam Newton

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    The Saints' defensive line has played very well the past few weeks.

    They have been absolutely lights-out against the run and have been able to get more pressure in recent weeks than in a long time. They will need to continue to get pressure against Cam Newton on Sunday.

    Newton is only a rookie, but is among the league's most dangerous quarterbacks. He has great accuracy and is a threat to run the ball as well. The Saints' defensive line will need to wreak havoc on Newton to disrupt him and stop the Panthers offense.

    This game will also indicate how well the Saints will do against teams in the playoffs in regards to bringing pressure. The Saints will need to pressure quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers.

    The Saints could potentially play any of these quarterbacks in the postseason, and all of these guys are dangerous if you do not get pressure on them.

    I expect to see the Saints really try to get to Newton with their four down lineman, and hopefully they will succeed.

Saints' Run Defense

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    The Saints' run defense has been lights-out the past couple of games, and it will be interesting to see if they can keep the performance going against the Panthers.

    Carolina has two very capable rushers in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Both of these backs have hurt the Saints in the past, and have the ability to run for 100 yards on any given Sunday.

    The Saints know this and they will do everything they can to stop this duo before they get started. I am excited to see if the Saints can keep playing such good run defense because they will need these types of run stoppers to beat teams like San Francisco in the playoffs.

    The Saints have proven that they can stop the run, and they have another opportunity to establish that fact on Sunday.

Saints Linebackers and Safeties vs. Panthers' Tight Ends

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    The Saints will need to stop the Panthers' tight ends if they want to win on Sunday.

    New Orleans will be facing Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen on Sunday, and both of these tight ends are great pass-catching guys. They are mismatches and can be extremely dangerous in the passing game.

    The linebackers and safeties of New Orleans are athletic and have the ability to stop the Carolina tight ends, and they will need to do so to limit the options for quarterback Cam Newton.

    It will be interesting to see how the Saints can do against these guys since they may be playing the likes of Jason Witten, Vernon Davis, Jermichael Finley, Tony Gonzalez, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler in the playoffs.

    The tight end is a safety blanket for virtually every quarterback, and the Saints will need to rip that blanket away if they plan on making a run to the Super Bowl.