Just how competitive is the NFC this season? As Panthers head coach Ron Rivera pointed out, 4 teams in the conference have ten wins or more and only one of them are guaranteed a playoff spot with just two games left in the regular season. The Carolina Panthers at 10-4, could win their division and secure the two seed spot plus a first round bye, or miss the playoffs completely if they’re not careful. The Cats have been in this position before. Just two weeks ago they entered a game with their division foe, the New Orleans Saints with the NFC South division lead on the line and they well laid an egg. Pretty much every team who has played in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome has this season.
Thankfully for Carolina they will get the rematch they have wanted since returning to Charlotte following the 31-13 loss to the Saints. This time the Saints will have to go into Panther territory and most importantly the road where New Orleans is 3-4 on the season including their most recent defeat a head scratching 27-16 loss to the 6-8 St. Louis Rams. One thing the Saints have going for them is their ability to rebound from tough losses. This season New Orleans is undefeated in games played after a loss. Granted two of the four losses were against New England and Seattle, the fact still remains they lost to two teams that were not as talented as they were in the New York Jets and St. Louis. Bottom line: home field advantage in this contest may not be as big of an advantage as some think.
Keys to the game:
1. Win the battle in the trenches
The Panthers were unable to get any kind of pass rush until late in the game when the outcome was well decided at that point. Last week the Carolina D was able to pressure Geno Smith by using some delayed safety blitzes with Captain Munnerlyn. It will be interesting to see if Rivera decides to do the same this week. If Carolina lets Drew Brees get comfortable in the pocket, this game could get ugly fast.
2. Get 6 in the red zone.
Carolina had two great offensive possessions in the first quarter two weeks ago and were unable to get a touchdown instead settling for two field goals. The woes continued for the first couple of possessions in the Jets game. As quickly as this Saints offense can score, it is crucial for the Cats to get touchdowns in the red zone instead of field goals. Kicker Graham Gano can only do so much.
New Orleans Saints:
1. Contain Cam Newton in the pocket.
Rob Ryan, the defensive coordinator for the Saints did a tremendous job of limiting Newton’s long scrambles while the Saints sacked Cam five times for a loss of 49 yards.Ryan is a very aggressive coordinator and expect him to throw the kitchen sink at the Carolina offense.
2. Silence the crowd.
The Panther faithful is expected to show up in large numbers on Sunday and make a lot of noise. It will be in the Saints best interest to reduce the crowd noise by making big plays out of the gate. Seattle’s fan base was able to cause some communication problems with the Saints offense a few weeks ago which helped to rattle New Orleans as a whole.