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NFL Preview - Carolina (6-9) at New Orleans (7-8)
By Michael Rushton, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The last time the New Orleans Saints finished a season 8-8, they followed up with their first Super Bowl title in franchise history.
Nobody knows what the 2013 season has in store for the Saints, but they would like to build momentum by finishing this campaign at .500. They'll try to do just that with a third straight victory this Sunday against a Carolina Panthers squad looking to post its longest winning streak in four years.
The Saints reached double-digit win totals in each of their previous three campaigns following an 8-8 record in 2008. Of course, New Orleans followed up that campaign with a 13-3 regular season in '09 and marched all the way to a Super Bowl victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
New Orleans also won 13 games a season ago before getting bounced out of the playoffs, but then came an offseason that saw the franchise lose its head coach, Sean Payton, to a season-long suspension due to the well-publicized bounty scandal.
Without Payton, the Saints lost their first four games, including a 35-27 decision at Carolina on Sept. 16, but went on to win five of their next six to spark playoff hopes. However, New Orleans followed with three losses in a row to dash those dreams.
Still, the Saints are making a run at .500 thanks to a 41-0 home win over Tampa Bay on Dec. 16 followed with last weekend's 34-31 overtime triumph at the Dallas Cowboys.
New Orleans saw Dallas score 14 points in the final 3:35 of the fourth quarter, but the Cowboys failed to score in overtime and Garrett Hartley won it with a 20-yard field goal.
Drew Brees completed 37-of-53 pass attempts for 446 yards with three touchdown strikes. Marques Colston caught a season-high 10 passes for 153 yards, while Darren Sproles ran for 48 yards while also catching seven passes for 104 yards.
Mark Ingram ran for a touchdown, while wide receiver Lance Moore, running back Pierre Thomas and tight end David Thomas all caught touchdown passes.
"It's big for us," Ingram said of shooting for 8-8. "We had a rough year but everybody stayed working hard. Coming to work every day getting better and when we come out on Sunday we just try to put forth our best effort and that's what everybody's doing."
Linebacker Curtis Lofton forced and recovered a fumble for the Saints, while defensive linemen Tom Johnson and Junior Galette had sacks.
The Panthers are also hoping to finish the season strong and are on their first three-game winning streak since closing out the 2009 campaign with three victories in a row.
Carolina and quarterback Cam Newton survived a tough meeting with the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, winning 17-6 in a contest that saw six combined personal four calls.
Newton received one of those flags for arguing with official and he also made contract with referee Jerome Boger.
Newton's maturity has been questioned at times, but was very apologetic afterwards.
"I apologized to the referee. What I said was disrespectful," Newton said. "I apologized during the game but I would like to do so publicly. It was just in the heat of the moment. I apologize again so the next time we see him or the next time I see him we'll be on good terms."
Newton threw for 170 yards with a touchdown pass to Steve Smith and also ran for a score. Rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly had nine tackles and an interception that helped set up a score.
Carolina outgained Oakland 271-189 and is trying to win four straight for the first time since Oct. 19-Nov. 16, 2008.
The Panthers will also try to sweep their season series with the Saints for the first time since 2008. They racked up 219 yards rushing and three scores on the ground in the earlier win over the Saints.
Brees threw for 325 yards with a TD pass and ran for a score, but was also picked off twice.
The win snapped Carolina's four-game slide to New Orleans.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Sunday will mark the end of what has been an emotional roller coaster for the Saints.
Credit goes to assistant coach Joe Vitt, who filled in for Payton as interim head coach after serving his own six-game ban to start the season. Vitt will walk off the field with his head high and an unknown future with Payton expected back in 2013.
"I'm not thinking about that now," said Vitt. "We've have our mind on one thing and that's winning this football game. We have no long-term strategic plans from a coaching standpoint. That's for another day at another time."
Brees will also wrap another excellent season and is staring at a number of possible accolades.
He leads the NFL with 4,781 passing yards and 39 touchdown passes and set a new NFL record by completing 20-plus passes in 51 straight games. Brees is also the first player in NFL history to reach 4,500 passing yards in three straight seasons and has a shot of becoming the first player to have consecutive campaigns of 5,000 yards passing.
Brees is also one touchdown pass shy of joining Dan Marino as the only quarterbacks to have two seasons with 40 or more touchdowns.
One of Brees' biggest strengths is his ability to spread the ball and the 2012 version of the Saints is just the second team in league history to have four players with at least 60 catches on the season. They join the 1990 Houston Oilers.
Brees will keep his eye this weekend on Kuechly, who is making a case for Rookie of the Year honors.
The ninth overall pick of the 2012 draft out of Boston College, Kuechly leads the Panthers with 151 tackles and grabbed his second career interception last time out.
Kuechly has helped Carolina post the eighth-ranked defense in the league and the club is giving up the fourth-fewest yards per game (301.2) since Week 5.
"We're just trying to make sure we point him in the right direction now," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "He is a heck of a football player and we will continue to coach him up, because believe it or not I think Luke Kuechly could be a better football player. I really do. He has that kind of ability. He is special."
Newton is also a special player and continues to grow in the NFL. He has passed for 11 touchdowns in his past six games and the only interception in that span came last weekend and ended a string of 176 straight attempts without a pick.
His 7,672 passing yards are 202 shy of Peyton Manning for the most over the first two seasons of a career.
The season may end for the Saints and Panthers this Sunday, but both know how important it is to finish strong. Just see 2008 for New Orleans.
"I think how we finish the season, how we start the parameters and how we start our offseason affects everything that you do during the season," said Vitt. "What you do in the offseason has a direct correlation to what you do during the season. I think that we've been able to build the past couple of weeks on the character that we have in the locker room."
That is something the Panthers would like to emulate as they try to build a winning foundation in Carolina.
"I can tell you this, if we want to be the team we know we can be, a playoff contender, it's going to have to come down to winning games in November and winning games in December," declared Newton. "You see the great teams and they do it all the time. We just want to get that in our pedigree moving forward."
While the Panthers were able to record a home win earlier this season, the Saints put a 45-17 hurting on the Panthers at home a season ago. Brees threw five touchdown passes, including two to Colston and one to Sproles, while Newton was limited to 158 yards passing and 32 on the ground.
No reason for the Saints to take the foot off the gas this weekend.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 31, Panthers 24
12/27 13:26:34 ET