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23


NFL Preview - New Orleans (13-2) at Carolina (7-8)



By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor

(Sports Network) - If it wasn't for the Chicago Bears beating the Minnesota Vikings in overtime on Monday Night Football last week, the New Orleans Saints may not have been able to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC on their own. After a 13-0 start, the Saints have lost consecutive games for the first time since early last season and face a tough task on the road against the division-rival Carolina Panthers this Sunday.

Even if the Saints lose to the Panthers at Bank of America Stadium, they still have a first-round bye and homefield advantage throughout the conference postseason thanks to the Bears. Losing two in a row isn't a big shocker for the Saints, but losing consecutive games at the Louisiana Superdome is rare. Prior to last Sunday's 20-17 defeat to fellow division foe Tampa Bay, which followed a home loss to Dallas, New Orleans hadn't dropped two straight games in the Big Easy since early in the 2007 campaign.

The Saints' high-powered offense has been held in check in the past two losses, as MVP candidate Drew Brees has only one touchdown pass over that span after enjoying five consecutive weeks of multiple TD tosses. The loss to the Cowboys was understandable, since Dallas is a playoff team, but losing to the lowly Bucs was inexcusable and should send a message inside the New Orleans locker room.

In order to restore their prolific offense, head coach Sean Payton must prepare differently and not take Carolina lightly. The New York Giants did just that on Sunday and got waxed by the Panthers, 41-9, in their final game at Giants Stadium.

Payton calls the plays for the Saints, who are averaging an NFL-leading 33.3 points per game this season. Now that the offense is starting to sputter, the New Orleans defense has followed suit.

Losing perception has been an occurrence for the Saints in recent years, and even their owner Tom Benson was misled on an errant Garrett Hartley field goal late in last week's game. Hartley's 37-yarder hooked to the left, and the premature celebration in the owners' box was silenced soon afterwards by the leg of Bucs kicker Connor Barth.

To touch back on the New Orleans defense, Tampa Bay running back Cadillac Williams rushed for 100 yards for the first time since 2006 in the Saints' most recent loss.

Brees will start for the NFC in February's Pro Bowl and will have guard Jahri Evans and tackle Jon Stinchcomb with him too. Free safety Darren Sharper and linebacker Jonathan Vilma made the list for the defense, with Sharper and Evans also set to start for the NFC.

Now the Saints get to face Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, who shredded New York for 206 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries a week ago and has posted 100 yards or more in back-to-back weeks. Even half of his efforts at the Meadowlands would give Carolina a reasonable shot at winning this week, especially with the way New Orleans has been playing.

It was reported earlier this week that Panthers head coach John Fox and his staff will be retained for the 2010 season. Fox, who has been head coach since 2002, is slated to earn around $6 million next year and will be one of the highest-paid coaches in the league. He has taken the Panthers to the Super Bowl, but that's pretty much the apex of his seven-year run.

Carolina has won two straight games over formidable foes (Vikings, Giants) and can finish 8-8 with a win Sunday. Fox has posted a record of under .500 for a season just three times in his lengthy tenure with the Panthers.

Panthers quarterback Matt Moore has been anything but subpar with his opportunities under center, however. Moore started his fourth straight game last week for the injured Jake Delhomme, who landed on injured reserve with a broken finger on his right hand, and threw for 171 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. He established career highs with a 75.0 completion percentage and 139.8 quarterback rating, but lost top wideout Steve Smith to a broken arm in the win.

Smith scored a touchdown in the second half of last week's game and absorbed a big hit from Giants defensive back Michael Johnson on the play. He underwent surgery on Monday. In his ninth year in the league, Smith recorded 982 yards and seven touchdowns on 65 catches this season, his lowest output since an injury-shortened 2004 campaign.

Making the Pro Bowl for Carolina are defensive end Julius Peppers and injured running back DeAngelo Williams. Peppers was selected to start, while Williams is a reserve.

SERIES HISTORY

Carolina leads its all-time series with New Orleans, 16-13, but was a 30-20 road loser when the teams met in Week 9. The Panthers swept last year's home- and-home, earning a 30-7 home victory when the teams met in Week 7, then closing out the NFC South with a dramatic 33-31 victory at the Superdome in Week 17. The Saints last won in Charlotte in 2007.

Fox has a 10-5 record against the Saints in his career, while Payton is 2-5 against both Fox and the Panthers as a head coach. Fox and Payton both served as members of Jim Fassel's staff with the New York Giants from 1999 through 2001.

WHEN THE SAINTS HAVE THE BALL

Brees has been selected to play in his fourth Pro Bowl, having led the Saints to a team-record 13 wins this season. He has thrown for 4,388 yards with 34 touchdowns, only 11 interceptions and a 109.6 quarterback rating and is currently ranked first in the NFL in completion percentage, passer rating, touchdown passes. Brees also stands in yards per completion (8.5), completions of 25 yards of more (39) and fourth quarter passer rating (113.4), third in passing yardage and fifth in third down passer rating (101.9). The former Purdue star is only the second NFL player to throw for 4,000 yards in four straight seasons. Brees and Archie Manning are also the only two New Orleans quarterbacks to be selected to the Pro Bowl in the team's history. New Orleans is not only first in total yards and points per game because of Brees, but has a slew of very good wideouts starting with Marques Colston (69 receptions, 1,071 yards, 9 TD). Devery Henderson (50 receptions, 2 TD) is second among Saints in receiving yards (786), while Robert Meachem (43 receptions, 9 TD) has emerged on the scene and is tied with Colston for the team lead in touchdown receptions.

Panthers cornerback Richard Marshall (82 tackles, 4 INT) and safety Chris Harris (58 tackles, 3 INT) each picked off the Giants' Eli Manning once last Sunday. The two of them, along with cornerback Chris Gamble (54 tackles, 4 INTs), may catch a break this week, because the Saints have already locked up the No. 1 seed in the NFC and homefield advantage throughout the conference playoffs and could rest some key starters. It would help to get some good hits on Brees if Payton opts to start him on Sunday, and that assignment belongs to Pro Bowl end Peppers (39 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 1 INT). Fox can only hope his stop unit can play as well as it did in New York when Sunday's game commences. The Panthers held New York 60 rushing yards, the second fewest this season for the G-Men, and recorded four sacks of Manning. Peppers, Charles Johnson (25 tackles, 4 sacks) and Tyler Brayton (42 tackles, 5 sacks) each had one, while stud linebacker Jon Beason (134 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 INT) had the other. Peppers has posted 10 or more sacks for the sixth time in eight seasons, while Brayton now owns a career high with five.

The Saints are fifth in rushing this season, thanks to Pierre Thomas' emergence on the gridiron. Thomas (793 rushing yards, 6 TD) had 60 yards and a score on six carries against the Bucs, and recorded his first rushing touchdown since a Week 9 win against Carolina. Mike Bell (626 rushing yards, 5 TD) and Reggie Bush (355 rushing yards, 5 TD) are both deadlocked at five rushing touchdown apiece. All three backs have the ability to beat teams with their hands, as Bush leads the backfield with 47 receptions for 335 yards and three scores. Thomas has hauled in a pair of touchdown passes in 2009. Much of the success on the ground can be attributed to a cohesive offensive line, and the NFL acknowledged that by adding Evans and Stinchcomb to the NFC Pro Bowl roster.

Beason was a Pro Bowl snub despite posting his third consecutive 100- plus tackle season. He recorded a game-high 13 tackles, a sack, a pass defensed and a forced fumble last Sunday at Giants Stadium, and could arguably start in the middle for the NFC Pro Bowl team. James Anderson (59 tackles, 1 sack) also plays a big role in run defense and will be busy for how long Payton keeps his offensive starters in. The Panthers are fourth in pass defense this season, but just 25th against the run. They should expect to see a healthy dose of Bell and Bush on Sunday, with Thomas resting for the postseason.

WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL

Moore (891 passing yards, 7 TD, 2 INT) has made a case to be Carolina's starting quarterback next season with his surprising play the last few weeks. For how bad Delhomme was this year, Moore has been a breath of fresh air for a struggling team that had so much potential at the start of 2009. Moore has played to a 98.9 passer rating and improved to 5-2 as a starter for his career with last Sunday's win. His weekly improvement has been noticed by both the coaches and players, and Moore said he is not worried about his status for next season. His 3-1 record as the team's regular signal-caller has turned quite a few heads, something veteran receiver Muhsin Muhammad will have to do now that Smith is out with a broken forearm. Muhammad (46 receptions, 1 TD) caught his first touchdown pass of the season against the Giants and is second on the team in both receptions and receiving yards (496). Muhammad helped the Panthers compile 416 yards of total offense, with the team recording 247 yards rushing and 169 yards passing against a Giants defense that entered the game ranked seventh in the NFL with an average of 306.8 yards per game allowed. Carolina had its third-highest output this season, behind only a 440-yard effort at Atlanta and 425 yards registered versus Buffalo. The 41 points were also a season-best.

The Saints have been playing poor pass defense the last two games and face a Carolina offense not predicated on the throwing the football. But with Moore under center, the Panthers have improved somewhat in the passing game. New Orleans free safety Sharper (71 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 9 INT) has enjoyed a strong first season in the Big Easy and is the NFL's active leader with 63 interceptions. Sharper will be headed to the Pro Bowl for the fifth time in his career and is ranked second all-time in interception return yardage with 1,412. Strong safety Roman Harper (100 tackles, 1.5 sacks) has topped 100 tackles in a season for the first time in his career, while rookie cornerback Malcolm Jenkins (55 tackles, 1 INT) finished tied for the team lead with 10 stops in the loss to the Bucs. Cornerback Tracy Porter (56 tackles, 4 INT) is second on the team in interceptions and has to be relieved that Smith is out for this game.

Stewart (1,008 rushing yards, 9 TD) ran for 206 yards against the Giants to break the previous team single-game mark of 186 yards set by DeAngelo Williams last year. Stewart also had a career-long run of 52 yards and reached the 1,000-yard mark in his second season at the NFL level. He leads the Panthers with nine rushing touchdowns in 2009 and helped them become just the sixth team since the 1970 merger to have two players with 1,000 yards rushing in the same season. Williams, who has 1,117 yards on a team-high 216 carries, is listed as questionable for Sunday's season finale because of an ankle injury and did not play last week. The Panthers are third in rushing this season, averaging 154.7 yards per game, and owe mush of that success to the offensive line. Tackles Travelle Wharton and Geoff Schwartz have helped the backfield average 4.8 yards per rush this season. The line has also been valuable inside the opposing 20-yard line, as Carolina scored on all four of its trips to the red zone last week. The Panthers also did not have any turnovers for the third straight game.

Cadillac Williams pounded the Saints for 129 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries this past Sunday. New Orleans hasn't had much of an opportunity to stop the run this season, because its offense is usually comfortably ahead and forces opposing teams to throw more often. This week won't be easy for the Saints, who will go face-to-face with the resurgent Stewart. Tackles Sedrick Ellis (34 tackles, 2 sacks) and Remi Ayodele (29 tackles, 1.5 sacks) combined for nine stops last week, but never got a good hold of Tampa's Williams. Pro Bowl linebacker and leading tackler Vilma (110 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INT) was voted by his teammates as defensive team captain for the 2009 season and has recorded six-double digit tackle games for the year, including a season-high 15 stops against Dallas a few weeks ago. Top end Will Smith (48 tackles, 13 sacks) and Charles Grant (43 tackles, 5.5 sacks) each had a sack last week, while tackle Anthony Hargrove (36 tackles, 4 sacks) had the other. Smith and Grant will most likely see a limited role with New Orleans already the No. 1 seed. In other news, end Bobby McCray was arrested Tuesday and charged with driving while intoxicated and other counts. He may not see action on Sunday.

FANTASY FOCUS

Before the Saints clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC they had at least five productive players worthy of starts in all fantasy leagues. But now that they'll most likely rest most of their starters with homefield advantage locked up, many of those players seem obsolete. Brees, Colston, Meachem, Henderson and Thomas have led many owners to the fantasy Super Bowl, but now all seem as risky picks. Bell and Bush have better upside this week than in the past. The Panthers have nothing to play for, and maybe that's what the Giants were thinking last week before getting crushed at the Meadowlands. Stewart is riding the hot hand with DeAngelo Williams nicked up and Moore is starting a quarterback controversy because of his recent play. For desperate owners, Muhammad has the potential to come through with at least one score now that Steve Smith is done for the remainder of the season.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

With the regular-season finale now devoid of playoff implications, the Saints still have to play well before the league's second season begins. Blowing out teams used to be the norm most of the year for New Orleans until consecutive setbacks opened a few eyes within the locker room. Payton stressed this week how important it is for his team to "get things corrected" before the playoffs start in a few weeks. The defense needs to step it up and run blocking has been lacking in recent weeks for the Saints, who clearly understand that playing better must start now and not in the second half of the divisional round of the postseason. New Orleans must get back to what it was doing so well earlier this season even if its just for 30 minutes on Sunday, because losing a star player in a meaningless game could be detrimental. Carolina would enjoy nothing more than to hand the Saints a third straight loss after a 13-0 start and head into the offseason on a strong note. Fox may not get the contract extension he so dearly seeks, but perhaps a strong finish will lead to better results in 2010.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Saints 23, Panthers 17

12/31 12:25:19 ET