This upcoming Sunday could arguably be the NFL’s game of the year (of the regular season). The red hot Carolina Panthers (9-3) will travel south to take on their division rivals, the New Orleans Saints (9-3).
The game has a lot on the line in terms of division placement and playoff seeding. While the game’s result will not determine the division champion, it should offer some insight as to what to expect the rest of the way.
Although vastly different in game philosophy and talent, both of these teams appear to be evenly matched. They even share identical 9-3 records.
|Record||Carolina Panthers||New Orleans Saints|
The Panthers have played one more conference game than the Saints and, as a result, are a game back in the loss column. The same can be said about their common opponents (teams they both play during the regular season). It is hard to really differentiate between two teams based on a half game difference and the fact that they are going into their first meeting of the year.
Carolina has put together eight consecutive wins and has their first winning record since 2008, the last time they won a division title. They have seen tremendous growth from quarterback Cam Newton and have fielded one of the strongest defenses in franchise history. The latter ranks second in total defense behind the Seattle Seahawks. Both have been instrumental in putting the Panthers in playoff contention.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Saints are coming off a huge thumping on national television from the aforementioned Seahawks and will need to take advantage of home field when they host the Panthers Sunday night.
Drew Brees leads an extremely potent passing offense, and their defense isn’t that bad either. Compared to Carolina, the New Orleans defense doesn’t come close. However, it is still a top-10 unit coming in at No. 8 overall.
While many pundits are quick to suggest the Saints will have their way with the Panthers, it should be noted that the Cardiac Cats of 2013 have a slight edge in the all-time series.
Carolina is 19-17 against New Orleans and is coming off a series sweep from last season. Granted, the Saints were buried in distraction from the bounty hunting scandal, but there has not been too much change to the team’s roster since last season ended.
Another interesting tidbit is that this will be the first season in which both teams are in the running for the division title. In previous seasons where they were playoff bound, Carolina either swept or split the season series with New Orleans. Sunday should be a good indicator of which team is primed for a deep playoff run.
The game will feature strength against strength and should offer a battle of wits between Carolina’s Ron Rivera and New Orleans’ Sean Payton.
There could be an argument for the Saints’ defensive coordinator Rob Ryan as his father Buddy coached Rivera when they were members of the Chicago Bears. While the Panthers defense is in the competent hands of Sean McDermott, Rivera has established himself as a man who assembles strong, formidable defensive units.
Much like the Panthers game against the New England Patriots, this one could come down to the team that is more opportunistic and makes the least mistakes. The Saints will undoubtedly have the advantage as their home crowd will be extremely loud. The confines of the Superdome will only amplify the noise. It doesn’t hurt that the Saints are undefeated at home this season either.
These two teams look to be evenly matched, and there should be a lot of physicality and extracurricular activity occurring between snaps.
Carolina has the personnel capable of getting inside an opponent’s head and throwing them off their game. This was the case with New England’s Aqib Talib and St. Louis’ Chris Long. Steve Smith could be instrumental in the psychological warfare as he has been all season. If he burns the New Orleans secondary, he will not hesitate to point it out.
However, the Carolina secondary will need to be on their toes to keep up with the talented Saints receiving corps. Any mistake by the corners or safeties could be costly. Brees is the type of quarterback who can destroy a secondary when given the time, so applying constant pressure to the pocket will be vital to Carolina stopping the New Orleans offense.
The Panthers will be playing with a chip on their shoulders as some of the players feel like they have been disrespected all season long. This makes them a very dangerous team. The Saints will return home looking to redeem themselves in the wake of their Monday night beating and have not dropped consecutive games since Nov. 25 to Dec. 9 of last season when they lost three straight.
Who will clinch the NFC South crown and when?
Each team has a soft schedule after this game, and the only obstacle for both of them will be each other when they lock horns again in Week 16 at Charlotte.
Game 1 of the season series won’t crown the division champion, but it will allow a national audience to witness one of the NFL’s underrated rivalries and put the winner in the proverbial driver’s seat to the division crown. Despite the outcome, both teams will come to play. It will come down to the team that wants it more.
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