Two weeks ago, the stars aligned to give us an NFC South matchup that not only would have huge divisional implications but also seeding implications for the playoffs.
The Panthers beat the Buccaneers in Week 13, and the Saints lost to the Seahawks to move both Carolina and New Orleans into a 9-3 deadlock. In Week 15, the Rams handed the Saints a 27-16 beatdown, while the Panthers gutted out a 30-20 win over the Jets.
Both teams are now 10-4 and tied atop the NFC South, and the winner next Sunday will be in the driver’s seat to win the division and grab the NFC’s No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
It took a sizable bounce-back performance from the Panthers to set Week 16 up as a must-win for both teams.
Carolina’s Week 14 loss to the Saints exposed a number of flaws, particularly in the secondary. Saints quarterback Drew Brees hit on five pass plays of 20 yards or more against the Panthers as he proved that area of the defense to be the weakest.
That flaw was exacerbated by the fact that Carolina got very little pressure on Brees.
The Panthers held New York quarterback Geno Smith to just 167 yards on 53.6 percent passing. The defense also kept Smith below six yards per passing attempt. There's no way Carolina’s success against Smith should be held in the same light as a game against Brees; Smith is a rookie with nowhere near the skills and experience to test Carolina like Brees did.
But the Panthers did enough to force Smith into erratic passing, and they took advantage of his mistakes in key situations.
With 8:30 to play in the game and the Panthers up 10, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn stepped in front of a Smith pass and picked it off, running it back 41 yards for a touchdown. The points iced the game for the Panthers, who just over four minutes earlier were only ahead by three.
The fourth quarter was a giant momentum swing. With a 16-13 lead and 12:56 to play, linebacker Jason Williams burst through the middle of the Jets line and blocked a punt. The Panthers took over on the Jets' 14-yard line and pushed the game to 23-13 with a one-yard Mike Tolbert touchdown run.
The opportunistic pick-six by Munnerlyn made the score 30-13. The Jets added a late touchdown, but the game was never in doubt.
"I took that kind of personal that we were the weakest link on the defense," said Munnerlyn after the game, as reported by ESPN 730 AM in Charlotte. "He (Jets receiver Santonio Holmes) felt like they could come out here and pick on the secondary. That was just his confidence. I think he got shot down today. I don't think they want to throw the ball against us."
On Thursday, Holmes called Carolina’s secondary its weakest link. He and the Jets paid the price three days later.
In Week 14, Brees and the Saints showed the Panthers that their secondary was their weakest link. But that was in the Superdome. Sunday’s win over the Jets hopefully built up some confidence that will carry forward into Week 16 when the Panthers host the Saints in Bank of America Stadium.
The NFC South will be on the line, and Carolina's secondary needs to step up again.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.