Panthers-Saints: Carolina Goes for Division Title as Drew Brees Tries for Record

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Panthers-Saints: Carolina Goes for Division Title as Drew Brees Tries for Record

The Carolina Panthers will visit the New Orleans Saints at the Superdome as the Panthers try to win the division title on Sunday.

The Panthers won the last meeting 30-7 as QB Jake Delhomme and WR Steve Smith stole the show offensively.  Delhomme threw for two touchdowns, and Smith accumulated 122 yards receiving.

On the defensive side of the ball, DE Julius Peppers was everywhere, pressuring Saints quarterback Drew Brees all day and getting a sack and forced fumble for his trouble.

The win followed what is still Carolina's worst loss of the year, a 27-3 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in south Florida.

However, that game was at Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers' home field.  This rematch is at the Superdome, the Saints' home field, where New Orleans is 6-1 overall and 2-0 in division play.

However, the Saints didn't win either divisional home game by more than four points—24-20 over the Bucs and 29-25 over the Falcons.

Carolina is 3-4 on the road and 0-2 in road divisional games.  In their two road games within the division, the Panthers have lost at the Bucs 27-3 and at the Falcons 45-28.  Carolina obviously needs to buck that trend.

Furthermore, NFC South teams are 11-0 at home in division games.  That definitely bodes ominously for the Panthers.

The Saints' offense clearly relies on the pass, considering it has Drew Brees, who makes everyone in an offense better.  But the Panthers may get some help with containing him.

New Orleans RB Pierre Thomas is questionable with a wrist injury.  If he misses the game, the Saints will have to rely on Deuce McAllister, who has been injured off-and-on this season and has only played well recently against the Lions.  Even then, he had a reserve role and carried the ball only nine times. 

New Orleans' ostensibly thin running game for this week could hurt Brees' effectiveness.  In the last game between these teams, run-pass threat Reggie Bush got hurt midway through the game, and Brees wasn't nearly as proficient afterward.

Plus, with Brees chasing Dan Marino's single-season passing record of 5,084 yards, set back in 1984, Saints head coach Sean Payton will probably let Brees throw as much as he wants to help him reach the record. 

Normally this wouldn't be acceptable, but the Saints have no shot at the playoffs, and they will be looking to give their fans something to cheer about in their last game until September 2009.

But Brees still needs 402 yards to break the record, a tall order even for a guy who averages 300-plus passing yards per game.  The Panthers' secondary often plays in deep pass coverage, which should make his task harder yet.

In addition, sizable Saints TE Jeremy Shockey has an ankle injury that will keep him out of the game, taking away a big body Brees can use for short- to medium-length gains and keep the chains moving.

 

Matchup To Watch: Panthers DE Julius Peppers vs. Saints LT Jammal Brown

Peppers wreaked havoc in the teams' previous meeting, and Brown will need to contain him if Brees wants to have a shot at breaking the passing record—he needs all the pass attempts he can get. 

Not only will this matchup go a long way toward deciding if Brees gets a chance to break the record, but it should also affect the outcome of the game.  If Brees is allowed to throw on the Panthers all day, Carolina will probably be looking at the No. 5 seed and a wild card game at the Cardinals.

The Panthers' offense is just as strong as the Saints, just in a different way.

Starting RB DeAngelo Williams has scored 18 rushing touchdowns (second NFL) this season and gained 1,337 yards (4th NFL).  Just last week he rushed for 108 yards and four touchdowns on the New York Giants, one of the best rush defenses in the NFL. 

He is without a doubt one of the best running backs in the league, likely even one of the top three.  If Williams can burn the Giants like that, imagine what he can do against a middle-of-the-pack run defense.

If Williams rushes for 104 yards, he will break the Panthers' single season individual rushing record of 1,440 set by Stephen Davis in 2003-04. 

In addition, with one touchdown run of 30-plus yards, Williams can tie a 50-year-old record set by Hall of Famer and former Cleveland Brown Jim Brown in 1958 for the most touchdown runs of 30 yards or more.  With two, he can break it.

Backup Jonathan Stewart shares carries with Williams, keeping both of them fresh, and brings a particular scoring touch to the table—he is tied for second among NFL rookies in touchdowns with nine. 10 is the leading figure in that regard.

Both Williams and Stewart are also capable of catching short passes, but they only participate in the passing game occasionally.

Expect this NFL-leading rushing duo to frustrate the Saints all day.

The Panthers also have a decent passing game to balance out the running attack.

Explosive WR Steve Smith is always a big-play threat and can change the momentum of a game with just one play.  He is fourth in the league in receiving yards (1,287) and tied for first in catches for 20-plus yards (20) and tied for third in catches for 40-plus yards (5).

No. 2 receiver Muhsin Muhammad can usually be relied on for short-range third-down catches to keep drives alive.  No. 3 target Dwayne Jarrett and TE Jeff King are the same way.

QB Jake Delhomme can usually be counted on to make plays if the running game somehow gets stopped.

The Panthers' offense should get a small boost from special teams because they have the theoretical edge in kickoff field position and punt return field position.

However, the Saints have a slight edge in the field goal department, as their kicker, Garrett Hartley, is 12-of-12 on field goal tries, whereas Carolina's John Kasay is 24-of-26.

 

Matchup To Watch: Jonathan Vilma vs. DeAngelo Williams

Williams is a game-breaking running threat, and Vilma anchors New Orleans' defense as well as leading the team in tackles with 119.  If Vilma wants his team to have a chance at containing Williams, he must have the game of his season

The politically correct thing to say about this game is that the Saints should win because of their record at home and NFC South teams' records at home in intra-division games and everything like that.

But the Saints have won both of their intra-division home games by a combined eight points.  They're far more vulnerable at the Super Dome than any other NFC South teams is at home. 

Plus, the Panthers have been resilient all season, never losing twice in a row.  And the Panthers want that bye.

If they can get it, they'll automatically be in the divisional round of the playoffs and get to play a home game, where they haven't lost since last year for the right to get a chance to go the Super Bowl.

And don't forget that Jake Delhomme and John Fox are a combined 10-0 at the Superdome with the Panthers.

The Panthers nearly beat the Giants last week.  If they're good enough to give themselves a solid shot to beat the Giants, then they're plenty good enough to beat an 8-7 team with nothing more to play for than screwing us over and helping their QB and leader set a new NFL record.

Look for the Panthers to win the NFC South.

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