What once looked like your average run-of-the mill division matchup has now turned into a must-win situation for both teams involved.
When the 9-3 New Orleans Saints host the 9-3 Carolina Panthers, the No. 2 seed in the NFC will be on the line. The difference between a win and a loss could be as simple as the difference between the No. 2 and No. 5 seed in the playoffs.
Meaning you could go from earning a bye week followed by a home contest to opening the playoffs on the road in some obscure city like Detroit (I kid). Furthermore, you could be in danger of missing out on the playoffs completely.
Dropping out of the playoffs would take a complete collapse by either squad, but with little room for error, it's certainly plausible.
Needless to say, this matchup is paramount.
Carolina is the hottest team in the NFL after winning its eighth game in a row.
New Orleans is just now waking up after being knocked out in the first round in its last game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Both teams can be explosive on offense, and both have physical defenses. Expect a compelling game with the outcome derived from the team that makes the fewest mistakes.
Breakdown of Key Personnel
Carolina quarterback Cam Newton is one of the brightest young stars in the NFL. He's always been a threat to take over a game from an athletic standpoint, but now he's shown that he has the ability to mentally decipher situations and influence outcomes in a positive manner.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula has done a good job at working on the intricacies of the game with Newton, but overall, Newton's offense has been pretty average. Newton has thrown for 2,616 yards with 19 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He's completing a career-high 61.7 percent of his passes and has chipped in 447 yards on the ground.
The numbers may be skewed a bit, as the team got off to a rocky start. During the winning streak, though, Newton has completed 64.0 percent of his passes with 13 TDs, as opposed to just six INTs.
A lot has been said about how similar the Seahawks and Panthers are. Both have young, dual-threat QBs who are threats through the air and gash opponents on the ground, and the much bandied about read-option play is employed by both squads. Newton's size (6'5", 245 pounds), however, brings an element that the Seahawks will never boast.
Here we see why the Panthers are the best team in the option game.
Due to Seattle QB Russell Wilson's size (5'11", 206 pounds), the Seahawks don't want him to get touched, so they exclusively run the read-option. They use it more as an isolation play to get Wilson in space.
The Panthers, though, have essentially used Newton to create space.
Another way the Panthers differ from the Seahawks is in the blocking scheme.
Seattle employs a zone-blocking scheme where they essentially block space and engage at an angle.
The Panthers are a true drive-blocking unit that will blow opponents clean off the ball.
Here we see the defensive end bite on the original option to the lead back, which is something Saints defensive end Junior Galette did on a consistent basis against Seattle. The proper way to play this would be for the end to always crash down on the QB and force the action inside.
With Newton's size and superior running skills, though, that may be easier said than done. Newton has stiff-armed many defensive ends and created one-on-one opportunities with much smaller corners. Being that Newton is virtually the same size as Galette, he may be better off just staying put.
As you can plainly see, the man-blocking scheme creates some serious run lanes that almost force players to go to the initial read. If the end stayed home, the lead back ("Big" Mike Tolbert) could be on his way for a long TD.
The fun is just now beginning, though, as Cam has created his own one-on-one opportunity in the "alley," as it's described.
Newton one-on-one with a safety is football suicide, but when you add that he has an option to pitch the ball to a free runner, it becomes football euthanasia! The Saints' safety, Kenny Vaccaro, can give Newton a run for his money in the open field, but the Saints continue to employ him as a nickel corner, much to the chagrin of this column.
Above all else, proper tackling will be the name of the game against this team. While it may have been proper protocol to practice patience against the Seahawks, putting the most pressure possible on Carolina might be the way to go.
Linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne better eat their Wheaties.
The Panthers boast an impressive trio with Tolbert, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams. Tolbert (5'9", 245 pounds) oscillates between fullback and tailback. He's an excellent short-yardage back with soft hands. Stewart is an explosive power back that is working his way back from injury. When fully healthy, he's one of the very best doing it.
The best of the trio is Williams. He's one of the most underrated players of this generation. He has enough size to consistently tote the mail (5'9", 215 pounds), and he runs with sizzle and ferocity.
Saints fans are probably still having nightmares thinking about the last time Williams played in New Orleans. His 210-yard, two-TD performance—in last season's finale—sent the Saints home with their first losing season in quite a while. We should expect Lofton and company to be fired up to avenge that loss.
The battle between Saints corner Keenan Lewis and Panthers receiver Steve Smith might be the individual matchup to highlight.
Lewis should undoubtedly shadow Smith, as he has the ability to carry his team to victory all by his lonesome. Both Lewis and Smith are extreme competitors who are in need of hugs.
If Lewis shadows Smith and uses his wonderful press technique, a potentially volatile situation will undoubtedly spontaneously combust! Lewis is great in the short-to-intermediate range, but he struggles as the play goes further away from the ball.
Although Smith stands 5'9" and is listed at 185 pounds, he is the absolute hardest receiver in the NFL to tackle. If Lewis can erase him from the stats sheet, it will put pressure on the emerging Brandon LaFell to shoulder the load. Saints corner Corey White (6'1", 205 pounds) is a great match for the 6'2", 210-pound LaFell.
White is a boom-or-bust prospect at this point in his young career. He has the best ball skills in the secondary, but he's prone to making mistakes when doing so.
Here White shows you why he is both a gift and a curse. White plays the bottom part of this 9-route to absolute perfection. He stayed on top of the receiver, essentially shielding him from the ball, while turning himself into the receiver. He intercepts the ball at its highest point, but can't complete the process. Look at the jubilation on the Saints sideline; that was the last time any of them smiled. When White pulls it all together, he will be special.
Panthers tight end Greg Olsen is a talent. He's one of the fastest players at the position and will require plenty of attention. This may finally be the game in which Vaccaro gets to show how great of a safety he will eventually be. While Vaccaro shouldn't see the light of day against receivers, he has the prerequisite skills to cover elite tight ends. It's his turn now.
Across the board, the Panthers may have the best line in the NFL. Defensive ends Charles Johnson (8.5 sacks) and Greg Hardy (seven sacks) provide enormous pressure on the edges, while tackles Star Lotulelei and Dwan Edwards clog up the middle.
The Panthers are the second-ranked rush defense in the NFL, giving up a paltry 3.7 yards per attempt. I shudder to think about what this unit can do to the Saints' offensive line. The Seahawks stayed in the Saints' backfield, and I see no reason why the Panthers won't either. Johnson has been injured but is expected to play, according to the Charlotte Observer.
For a team that passes as much as the Saints, you would think they would make use of the delayed draw to combat the line's propensity for leakiness. Expect a ton of screen passes in this game. It's always good to use a team's aggressiveness against itself.
The duo of Thomas Davis (94 tackles, one INT, one FF) and Luke Kuechly (102 tackles, three INTs) is best when working in an even-front scheme. Both can go sideline to sideline, and both arrive with a vicious fervor when tackling. What separates them from a duo like Lofton and Hawthorne, though, are their abilities in pass coverage. Whether it be zone or man, both have a nose for the ball.
Both Kuechly and Davis will spend time defending the best tight end in the world—Jimmy Graham. Graham loves to work the seams, as he's a downfield nightmare, but this may be a game where hitches and slants take precedence. Both Kuechly (6'3", 235 pounds) and Davis (6'1", 235 pounds) are undersized, so letting Graham get physical with them in the short game seems ideal.
This unit is in trouble! Safety Mike Mitchell ran his mouth calling Drew Brees "soft" a couple of weeks ago. Now he's trying to Moonwalk his way out of the situation. Mitchell is average at best, and so is the rest of this unit. The best of the corners is Captain Munnerlyn, who makes up for his height (5'8") with great technique and athleticism.
Fellow corners Melvin White, Josh Thomas and Drayton Florence are decent, but all can—and will—be had.
For the Saints to get where they need to go, they must prove they can get it done against physical teams. Coming off being slaughtered by the Seahawks on a short week will make the task that much more difficult. The Panthers present problems at just about every position on each unit...but so do the Saints.
There are not too many teams that can waltz into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and hold this Saints squad to 13 points.
As a matter of fact, there aren't any.
When the Saints unleash their own ferocious pass rush and open up that beautiful aerial attack, things will get very interesting, to say the least.
Saints fans just need to relax and put the Seattle game behind them. Teams are never as worse as their worst game, and they're never as good as their best.
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