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Carolina Panthers: 5 X-Factors Going into Their Game Against the Saints

Charles EdwardsContributor IDecember 6, 2013

Carolina Panthers: 5 X-Factors Going into Their Game Against the Saints

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers (9-3) will embark on their biggest test of the year when they take on the New Orleans Saints (9-3) at the Louisiana Superdome.

    With control of the NFC South and playoff seeding on the line, there is a lot riding on this prime-time game of division rivals.

    While the Panthers are being dismissed as having any chance at handing the Saints their first home loss, people seem to forget that this series is very close, the Panthers holding a 19-17 edge all time. An argument can be made that Carolina took advantage of very mediocre New Orleans teams prior to the Sean Payton era which began in 2006.

    However, with five winning seasons (including this year) in the history of the Carolina franchise, that argument does not hold much water.

    Sunday night’s game will be one that will be hotly contested and could be a very close affair. Much like the close games the Panthers have won earlier this season, it will come down to determination, flawless execution and few X-factors.

Cam Newton

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    There is a lot of speculation that if the Carolina Panthers are going to defeat the New Orleans Saints, Cam Newton will need to match Drew Brees in terms of production. Newton is a very gifted quarterback in his own right, but he is no Brees. The young man has matured a lot as a signal-caller and this weekend’s game inside the dome will not be his first rodeo, but it will definitely have a playoff-like atmosphere.

    Newton is sporting a total QBR of 71.6 during the team’s current winning streak, and while his passing numbers haven’t been flashy, he has been doing enough to get points on the board. He has passed for 1,731 yards over the past eight games (216.4 average per game) and has thrown 13 touchdowns and just six interceptions during that same stretch. The latter number is very telling because in recent years, a Newton turnover generally meant the Panthers chances of winning were slim. This year has changed that line of thinking.

    However, what makes Newton stand out as one of the best quarterbacks in the game is his ability to make plays with his feet. He hasn’t had to scramble as much in 2013 as he did in his first two professional seasons, but he is still a threat to create havoc for opposing defenses and turn a would-be sack into a 20-yard gain.

    It will be those unique talents that will be required to upend the Saints at home. This year’s version of Cam Newton is a polar opposite to what the teams have seen in the past. As long as he is getting great protection from the offensive line, he will be able to do a lot of damage to the New Orleans defense.

     

Rushing Attack

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    31 Attempts, 235 yards 5 TDs

    Those were the rushing statistics of both DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert in last year’s finale inside the Superdome. There is no reason to think a repeat is impossible to take place.

    Williams came into that game with only 527 rushing yards on 152 carries. This season he has been the featured back of the offense with Jonathan Stewart being sidelined due to injury. After missing the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Williams should be well rested going into this weekend’s game and look to pick up where he left off last year.

    That is just one part of the equation.

    Mike Tolbert has been doing his part to keep the Panthers’ drives alive on offense and his size has been an asset, making it difficult for defenders to bring him down. Tolbert is the ideal back as he can run, block and catch.

    It is safe to assume he will be seen lining up at both fullback and running back on gameday, just like he has in every other game this season.

    The success of the offense will rest on the productivity of the running game. If the tandem of Williams and Tolbert can do what they did the last time they were in the dome, they will be making life easy for both Cam Newton and the Carolina defense.

    If Stewart can play this week, the Panthers will have another running back capable of busting out a big run. He has been mainly quiet since his return to the field, but he could be primed for a breakout game down in the bayou.

     

Steve Smith

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    There isn’t much to say here as anyone who is familiar with Steve Smith will tell you; the man can make big plays and he can get into an opposing player’s head with ease. While the playmaker side of Smith has been missing for quite some time; he has proven to be cerebral in how he can challenge a defense.

    Fans have seen him get the best of both Janoris Jenkins and Aqib Talib this season. If Smith is able to get into the minds of the New Orleans secondary and become a productive target, he could be in line for a big game.

    Smith has been the emotional leader of the Panthers for a long time. He has taken the rookies under his wing and helped mentor them into quality players on the field. And the best part is that he is still drawing double-teams, which allow fellow receivers Brandon LaFell and Ted Ginn Jr. to make big plays.

    Going into New Orleans (and presumably picking up in Charlotte during Week 16), Smith should add a little more fire to his disposition. There is no love lost between him and the Saints defense. Their meeting two years ago has proven that. Now that the division title is in play (or at least the road to it), there will be more for Smith and company to prove.

    It doesn’t hurt that the game is on national television, either.

Pass Rush

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    The good news for the Panthers is bad news for the Saints. Charles Johnson, the team’s sack leader, should be returning to the field Sunday night. Combine Johnson’s ability with that of fellow end Greg Hardy and the interior of Star Lotulelei and Dwan Edwards, Monsters, Inc. will be at full strength for their showdown with the Saints.

    They will need to bring their A-game too.

    The Carolina secondary is still considered a question mark and unless the Panthers can generate a quality pass rush to keep Drew Brees off balance, it could be a long night.

    There is no doubt the coaches are preaching smart tackling techniques, as they don’t want to end up on the wrong side of a penalty for roughing the passer. This proved to be a game-changer when the Saints hosted the San Francisco 49ers earlier in the season. The Panthers cannot afford to keep Brees and his offense on the field with late or illegal hits.

    It should be interesting to see if Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott deploys a blitz package from his outside linebackers or defensive backs. He has not been shy about this in the past and creating multiple blitz packages to keep Brees guessing will go a long way in assisting the secondary and perhaps eliminating the big pass play.

Ron Rivera

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Whether he is called Riverboat Ron or Analytical Ron, there is no denying the change in Ron Rivera’s coaching style has helped propel the Carolina Panthers into the thick of the NFC South title hunt.

    The Panthers have come a long way from their 1-3 start and had Rivera implemented his new coaching strategy sooner, there is no reason to believe this Carolina team could be one or two wins better than what they are now.

    However, the fact remains the Panthers are 9-3 and tied with New Orleans. There is no doubt Rivera will have to pull out all the stops in order to get by the Saints. Rivera was afforded the opportunity to watch New Orleans play on Monday Night Football earlier in the week and put together some notes in order to prepare for this crucial matchup.

    To his credit, Rivera’s seat has cooled off immensely, and it is safe to assume he has earned himself another year as the Panthers head coach. Right now, that is not a concern for Rivera as he will try to get his team prepared to play the team’s first playoff-like game in a long time.

Bonus: No Sense of Urgency for Carolina to Win

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    The Carolina Panthers may have the advantage going into this game. They will want to come away with the victory, but their schedule is still favorable enough to get them into the playoffs. Winning the division and locking up a first-round bye is great, but history has proven that being a No. 5 or No. 6 seed can have its perks.

    Fans of Carolina are very familiar with the team’s last division title. The Panthers clinched the NFC South crown with a 12-4 record in 2008 and secured a first-round bye. They took on the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC Divisional Round and after an impressive first series by the Carolina offense, the team just fell apart. The Cardinals went on to upset the Panthers at home and beat the Philadelphia Eagles a week later to advance to that year's Super Bowl.

    The Panthers would love to win the division, but it should be noted that all is not lost if they earn a wild-card berth. The wild card was introduced in 1970 and since then, 10 teams have gone on to advance to the Super Bowl. The Green Bay Packers were the latest to do in 2010, when they defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers to claim the Lombardi Trophy.

    How does a wild card help Carolina?

    The Panthers look poised to claim the fifth seed if they come up short in the division chase. As it stands, their record is a lot better than current division leaders Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions, who are both 7-5 on the season. Carolina has proven it can win on the road as it is 4-2 away from home heading into this weekend’s contest with New Orleans. This will be the Panthers' last tough road trip before taking on an underachieving Atlanta Falcons team to close the regular season.

    Root for the Panthers to win on Sunday night, but keep in mind that a loss only sets them back one game in the division. They will still be a major contender in the playoff picture.

     

    Feel free to follow me on Twitter Panther Nation.

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