After disappointing seasons, the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints are both looking to use their Week 17 meeting to springboard them to better things next year. But it's unclear whether a win in New Orleans on Sunday will help keep Carolina from making sweeping organizational changes.
Since starting 2-8, the Panthers (6-9) have won four of five. They've won three straight by double digits, including a victory against the NFC's top seed Atlanta, but it still might not be enough for owner Jerry Richardson to retain coach Ron Rivera for another year.
Rivera is 12-19 in two seasons at the helm and still has two years remaining on his contract. But even a 7-9 finish would likely be a disappointment for a team that seemed to have a shot at its first playoff berth since 2008-09 after Cam Newton burst on the scene as a rookie last season and the team won four of its final six games.
Rivera said there hasn't been any assurances from Richardson, and the two haven't had any recent discussions regarding his job.
"I think we're doing some really good things and I like the way the guys have stayed focused," Rivera said. "That is very gratifying for a coach knowing that they're hearing the messages the coaches are sending. I appreciate their focus to the details of preparing. We have done a lot of good things."
For what it's worth, many of Rivera's players seem to have his back.
"It is great to fight for a guy that believes in us," Steve Smith said after Carolina's 17-6 win against Oakland on Sunday. "We believe in him. It's just a great way to show our appreciation for someone."
Another decision looming ahead for Richardson is on the general manager front. He hired former Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi as a consultant to help replace Marty Hurney, whom Richardson fired after the Panthers started 1-5. Brandon Beane has served as the team's interim general manager in the meantime, and is considered a candidate for the full-time position.
The Saints (7-8) will miss the playoffs for the first time in four years. New Orleans faced an uphill fight after the team's suspensions because of the bounty scandal, and started 0-4. Despite going 7-4 since, including Sunday's 34-31 overtime win at Dallas during which Drew Brees threw for 446 yards and three touchdowns, the Saints were eliminated from contention due to other results.
Joe Vitt, the team's interim coach in place of the suspended Sean Payton after serving his own six-game suspension, is focused on making this season an outlier among recent years that have been the most successful in the franchise's history. Vitt has one particular goal in mind for the future.
"There's two types of Super Bowl winners: Those that win and those that win one," Vitt said. "And our goal is to win two and we're working toward that goal right now."
New Orleans' defense will try to avoid infamy on Sunday. The Saints have surrendered 6,512 yards this season, 281 shy of the record 6,793 given up by the 1981 Baltimore Colts, which Vitt served as an assistant coach for. New Orleans allows 434.1 yards per game, over 40 yards more than the next worst team.
They have improved recently, allowing 376.8 over the last five games. The Saints' 41-0 shutout of Tampa Bay two weeks ago was the team's first since 1995.
"The main thing for me is we want to get a win," said linebacker Curtis Lofton. "So if we give up however many yards and we get a win, I'll take the W any day. This year has been very different for me and a lot of the guys, you know, giving up all the yards and all that stuff. The first four games was tough, but when you look at us the last seven games, we played great defense."
Taking aim against the suspect unit will be Newton, who recently has more resembled the record-setting rookie of last year. Newton has thrown for 14 TDs and three interceptions over his past eight games, compiling a passer rating of 99.3. His rating through the first seven games was 75.2 as he threw five TDs and was picked off eight times while the Panthers went 1-6.
Carolina had lost four straight in the series before Newton accounted for 324 total yards and two scores in a 35-27 win on Sept. 16. A Saints victory on Sunday would even the all-time series at 18 wins each.