Are the Carolina Panthers Ready to Compete Against Saints for NFC South Crown?

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Are the Carolina Panthers Ready to Compete Against Saints for NFC South Crown?
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The Carolina Panthers extended their win streak to seven on Sunday with a come-from-behind thriller over the Miami Dolphins. The Panthers haven’t lost since Oct. 6 and no team in the NFL has strung together as many consecutive wins.

But Carolina is still looking up at the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South standings, one game behind the division leaders with five games left on the schedule (including two matchups with the Saints).

Is Carolina ready to dethrone the Saints?

Millions are about to find out. NBC announced Sunday that the Week 14 matchup is going to be flexed into the 8:30 p.m. ET slot and broadcast on Sunday Night Football.

When the teams do meet in two weeks, it’s possible that they might meet as dead-even foes in the standings.

New Orleans must next travel to CenturyLink Field to take on the NFC’s top-seeded Seattle Seahawks, while Carolina is facing the recently hot, yet still 3-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

No matter what the standings say when New Orleans and Carolina first do battle on Dec. 8, the remaining schedule will play a lot into how the NFC South plays out.

Carolina Panthers: Remaining Schedule
Week Opponent Record
Week 13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3-8
Week 14 at New Orleans Saints 9-2
Week 15 New York Jets 5-6
Week 16 New Orleans Saints 9-2
Week 17 at Atlanta Falcons 2-9

ESPN

Besides the two matchups against each other, Carolina also faces the Buccaneers, New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons, while New Orleans has Seattle, the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay remaining.

New Orleans Saints: Remaining Schedule
Week Opponent Record
Week 13 at Seattle Seahawks 10-1
Week 14 Carolina Panthers 8-3
Week 15 at St. Louis Rams 5-6
Week 16 at Carolina Panthers 8-3
Week 17 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3-8

ESPN

But do the Panthers have what it takes to topple the Saints twice in Weeks 14 and 16?

The answer is "no," and it's not because the talent isn't there. Carolina simply doesn't match up well against the division leaders.

Though Carolina's pass defense ranks sixth in the league in YPG allowed, it hasn’t faced an offense quite like the one Sean Payton can trot out there. The best passing offenses Carolina has faced this season were mediocre at best. The Falcons rank sixth in passing yards per game (273), but were without their two top options in Julio Jones and Roddy White when the two teams met.

The New England Patriots rank 15th in the league in passing offense with 245 yards a game. The New York Giants rank 17th, but after that, all of Carolina’s other opponents rank from No. 20 (Miami) to No. 32 (San Francisco) in passing offense.

Carolina's secondary will see an aerial assault from Drew Brees like no other it's experienced.

The deep threat Mike Wallace posed on Sunday was just a preview. New Orleans can send Lance Moore and Robert Meachem deep, and most dangerous is rookie Kenny Stills. Those are three options to exploit a weakness that Wallace himself exposed in Week 12.

If New Orleans is unable to connect with any of its deep threats, Brees always has tight end Jimmy Graham as a security blanket—and the Panthers have been unable to keep athletic tight ends out of the end zone. Rob Gronkowski caught five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown last Monday night against the Panthers defense, while Tony Gonzalez scored through the air and hauled in six passes for 81 yards in Week 9.

With 65 catches and 946 yards receiving this season, Graham is the best pass-catching tight end in the business.

Without a doubt, Carolina’s defense is incredible. However, the gifts that New Orleans has on offense are in the exact areas the Panthers can be exploited in. The Panthers are strongest against the run, but New Orleans doesn’t have to run the ball to win.

When it comes to the offense, the Panthers should absolutely be able to run effectively against the Saints' run defense. But don’t expect quarterback Cam Newton to have too much success throwing the football.

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New Orleans ranks third in opponents' passing yards allowed per game at 198. In three of the last four weeks, the Saints have held opponents to fewer than 140 passing yards in a game.

And if there’s anything defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is great at, it’s getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Miami showed the league in the first half on Sunday that frenzied pressure on Newton could effectively shut down Carolina’s offense. Ryan should be able to dial up a pass rush that will make Miami’s feel like playground football. And, unlike the Dolphins, the Saints can do it for four quarters.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Carolina can win one or both upcoming matchups against the Saints.

To do so, Carolina’s defenseparticularly the secondaryneeds to step up and confuse and slow Brees. On the offensive side, the Panthers must pound the football through the Saints defense on the ground and use Newton’s new affinity for short-range passing as an advantage.

If all that happens, these two Panthers-Saints game could become as wonderfully entertaining as they are important to the NFC South landscape.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.

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