NFL Preview - New Orleans (10-4) at Carolina (10-4)
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - If revenge really is best served cold, the New Orleans Saints have to be happy the extended weather forecast for Charlotte calls for 70 degree temperatures on Sunday.
Two weeks after halting Carolina's franchise-best, eight-game winning streak in New Orleans, the Saints have to solve the Panthers again, this time in the Tar Heel State.
Both teams have a chance to lock up a postseason spot on Sunday win or lose.
A triumph for New Orleans will give the Saints the NFC South title along with a first-round bye. Carolina locks up at least a wild card berth by winning.
NOLA can still get in the postseason by losing if Arizona also suffers a setback in Seattle or with a few other more complicated scenarios. The Panthers need both Arizona and San Francisco to lose if they suffer the setback against the Saints.
"We know what we're playing for -- we're playing for the divisional championship and the two seed so it doesn't get any bigger or better than that," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "It is going to be a challenge for us. Obviously we understand our deficiencies on the road here the last couple of trips. It is great motivation for us."
New Orleans is certainly more comfortable in the Bayou, compiling a perfect 7-0 mark in the Mercedes Benz Superdome versus a 3-4 record on the road.
The Saints blitzed the Panthers, 31-13, in NOLA back on Dec. 8 when Brees surgically picked apart Carolina's top-tier defense, throwing for 313 yards and four touchdowns on 30-of-42 efficiency.
New Orleans tallied three touchdowns in the second quarter against a Panthers defense that hasn't allowed more than two in any other game this season.
The Saints, however, have sandwiched that outing with two dismal losses away from the Big Easy, a 34-7 thrashing at the hands of top-seeded Seattle on Dec. 2 and a 27-16 drubbing in St. Louis last week.
Brees was able to throw for 393 yards and one touchdown on 39-of-56 attempts against the Rams but a lot of that came in garbage time and he was also intercepted twice. Marques Colston topped an eight-man receiving corps with 92 yards and a TD catch on eight receptions, to counterbalance Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas being limited to a combined 45 yards rushing on 15 attempts.
"Today's game was unacceptable and it's on me," said Saints head coach Sean Payton. " We did all the things a team does to keep itself from winning. That was pretty ugly and it was an extremely disappointing loss."
The Panthers, meanwhile, bounced back from their setback in New Orleans to win for the ninth time in 10 games, besting the New York Jets, 30-20, when Cam Newton threw for 273 yards and a touchdown.
Newton completed 16-of-24 throws, including a 72-yard touchdown pass to DeAngelo Williams. Williams carried 15 times for 81 yards in the triumph.
"We had an opportunity to play those guys last week and came up short," said Newton while looking head toward the Saints. "But, on our turf with our situations, we'll be great."
Captain Munnerlyn had two sacks and an interception for touchdown to lead the Panthers' D against the Jets and Graham Gano kicked three field goals. Munnerlyn now has four pick-sixes since 2012, most in the NFL.
"It was a team victory," said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. "We did some good things on offense, defense and special teams."
The Panthers lead the all-time series with the Saints by a slim 19-18 margin despite the loss two weeks ago,
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
A lack of pressure from Carolina's imposing front seven along with far too much zone on the back end spelled doom for the Panthers against Brees in New Orleans.
"We didn't play our game down there," Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott admitted. "We didn't respond and play the way we normally play. That also goes back to my calls and the game plan. There is a lot we can improve on. We've got our work cut out for us. We've got to make sure we play our style of football when they come in here."
Colston had nine receptions for 125 yards and two scores in the first outing, while Jimmy Graham added a pair of TD catches for the Saints.
McDermott seems to understand he was far too passive in the Superdome and will certainly amp things up in front of his home crowd, although it's always preferable to get a strong rush from the front four against a quarterback like Brees.
"Statistically, you know that he's pretty darn good against the blitz," McDermott said when asked about Brees. "Most great quarterbacks are better when you blitz them because they want to get the ball out into the receivers' hands. Drew is no different, so we'll have to be smart. We'll have to cover well if and when we do blitz."
The Rams were able to generate a significant pass rush from their front four but also possess Robert Quinn, perhaps the best pure pass rusher in all of football. Carolina has two excellent pass-rushing ends themselves in Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy and Hardy, the right end, really needs to step it up this time.
Embattled Saints left tackle Charles Brown was benched this week in favor of rookie Terron Armstead after struggling so much with Quinn.
"One of the strengths of our defense is our front four." McDermott said. "I'm hoping we can get off the rock and play some good defense upfront. That's the spearhead of our defense."
Conversely the Panthers need to protect Newton far better than they were able to a few weeks ago. The Saints sacked the dynamic Carolina quarterback five times in the Superdome and Newton was able to get loose just once while running the football. Junior Galette notched three of the Saints' sacks in that one as Newton completed 22-of-34 passes for just 160 yards and a touchdown.
"We all need to adjust as an offense to make sure we're on the right page with who's blocking who, with getting the ball out on time and receivers getting open," Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "It also helps to stay out of long-yardage situations where people think you're going to pass."
Shula believes getting the Saints' rushers like Galette and Cameron Jordan off the artificial turf in the dome will slow them down a bit. He's also intent on working in some screens and misdirection plays to make Rob Ryan and his defense think a little bit.
"You've got to mix in those screens. It helps our offensive line and hopefully slows down the pass rush," Shula said. "Misdirection-type things can keep guys off-balance. Defenses are so athletic and can get to the ball fast, so sometimes you can use that aggressiveness against them."
Besides the benching of Brown New Orleans made another key personnel move this week on special teams, cutting inconsistent kicker Garrett Hartley in favor of veteran Shayne Graham.
"These aren't decisions you make for effect," Payton said. "You don't do that. At least we don't."
The Saints average 32.9 points at the Superdome and just 18.4 on the road. Meanwhile, Carolina has won six straight at home by an average of 18.7 points per game.
This two games over a three-week stretch always smelled like a home-and-home split and its hard to imagine a New Orleans team, which has been outscored 61-23 in its prior two road outings, getting the best of the Panthers again even with what looks to be a big break in regards to the weather.
"The next two games as far as I'm concerned are playoff games," said Rivera. "There's a lot of importance to this next game against New Orleans. This is about as big as it gets."
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 27, Saints 20.
12/19 13:26:57 ET