"Carolina Panthers Bringing the Pain Train..." Crazy title, huh?
I'm still in awe of the Panthers' late-season resurgence, compared to their hot and (mostly) cold play through the first three quarters of the season.
So to say that the Panthers will be bringing the pain this Sunday against a reeling Saints team that plans to play its starters as if it were still in the hunt for a playoff spot, well...seems like I'm setting myself up for disappointment.
For once, though, I don't think I am.
The Panthers and Saints are usually pretty good for splitting the series 1-1, and at the decline of the Saints' play and the surging of the Panthers' play, it looks quite likely that Carolina should have this one in the bag.
My intent is not to slight the Saints, because they have made one hell of a run this year, and their record is right-on for the type of team they are and the level at which they've played all season long.
For one thing, there really is no reason for New Orleans coach Sean Payton to play his starters. The Saints have won the division, they have a first-round bye in the playoffs, and they have homefield throughout.
Bragging rights aside, to play the starters in what amounts to a meaningless game—while risking injury playing against a Panthers team looking to play with as much intensity as the previous two weeks—would be idiotic.
Payton might say he's going to play his starters throughout the game, but I doubt seriously he will follow through with it. If he does, then whatever injuries may happen are just deserved.
The Panthers are playing for what amounts to nothing more than pride, jobs, and positioning within the roster.
Panthers quarterback Matt Moore has had three strong performances since taking over at the starting position, and he should have a solid afternoon against a Saints defense that is comparable to both the Giants and Vikings defenses.
I don't want to be overly optimistic about Moore at this stage in the game because he hasn't started a lot of games. The advantage to that, however, is opposing defensive coaches still don't have a whole lot of game tape to review in order to put together a solid defensive game plan.
The Panthers offensive line has also stepped up in a big way. It has provided great protection for Moore and done a terrific job of opening up lanes for the running game (Jonathan Stewart ran for 206 yards against the New York Giants in Week 16).
The Panthers defensive line and secondary has also shaped up as a formidable opponent for opposing offenses.
Julius Peppers, after earning his fifth career Pro Bowl assignment, has put up the numbers and performance that warrants such recognition.
There's another factor playing into Carolina's favor on Sunday. With the loss of receiver Steve Smith for the season, running back DeAngelo Williams seems primed to return to the field in the home season finale.
In the end, I don't see the Saints being gang busters in this rematch. The Panthers had their number in October, and that was with Jake Delhomme (who threw no interceptions) as starting quarterback. In that game it was two fumbles that sealed the Panthers' fate.
Adding to everything, the weather is expected to be rather chilly. Not comfy dome conditions that the Saints are used to. Weather won't be the dominating factor, but it will certainly help.
With a Panthers win, the history of a "losing season after a winning season" will come to an end. A feat accomplished only under head coach John Fox's eight-year tenure in Carolina.
With a loss, the Panthers yet again finish no worse than 7-9 under Fox's reign.
The score should be close, since it is a division game. I'll take the Panthers to win by a margin of three points.